Features  Turning research into action

McGill should use students to make our campus green

Over the past month, McGill has increasingly become a university that I want to be a part of. The first step in this direction was the presentation of the most recent version of the McGill sustainability policy to the Board of Governors and the Senate: both groups endorsed the vision for a sustainable McGill. The policy clearly outlines a series of activities and aspirations to be undertaken by the University, with the goal of becoming an institutional model of sustainability for society. One of the policy’s commitments is to consider activities carried out by or on behalf of the University in light of their life cycle (social, economic, and environmental), and to establish sustainability indicators to enable accountability, to communicate specific goals, and to monitor and report on progress. The second step was the SSMU referendum, where the overwhelming majority of students voted to match the administration’s commitment to the sustainability projects fund, which will raise more than $2.5-million over the next three years.

It is impossible to treat these two steps in isolation, as the intention of both students and the administration with regard to sustainability has been made very clear: it is time for McGill to get up to speed. Now that we have our intentions in the right place, how are we going to get where we want to go? I think it begins by turning Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson into a prophet. He recently announced at McGill’s annual Rethink conference on sustainability in education that McGill was a student-centred university. This is simply not true, and we all know it. Rather, McGill is driven primarily by its research. But let’s hope Mendelson is predicting the future.

So in the spirit of the “student-centred” university, I have a suggestion. Since we do not yet measure, promote, or report on our sustainability as a university in any formal way, we should use research by informed students to drive and judge how well we are doing in this field – instead of worry about Maclean’s rankings.

Commonly referred to as “experiential learning” or applied student research, this is not a new idea. Students can and should be at the centre of both developing and completing sustainability performance indicators through their coursework. Gaps in knowledge or information are simply opportunities for student projects and research – in consultation with relevant staff and professors – to find creative ways to resolve these problems or to develop entirely new methods of gauging our successes and failures.

Each year, the results would be shared with the entire community as a means to facilitate action and to make more informed decisions. The University would then disseminate the knowledge and information required to support long-term planning objectives related to sustainability, and maintain positive institutional memory.

The best part is that we do not have to sit around writing op-eds in The Daily while we wait for permission to make this happen – we can start now. This year, McGill will be one among hundreds of universities across North America taking part in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s voluntary self-reporting framework for gauging relative progress toward sustainability. Those involved in sustainability on campus want to move away from the “Ministry of Truth”-style promotion of positive external rankings that universities often fall into. Actions aimed at achieving outside praise could end in greenwashing that would undermine everything we have accomplished to date.

Visit the site, read the policy, ask tough questions, and find courses that can support your becoming the centre of the University when it comes to sustainability. Use the University’s strengths to develop a worthwhile and honest account of our performance – both the good and the bad – so that our actions on sustainability continue to speak louder than our words for years to come.

Questions or comments are encouraged, and can be directed to jonathan.glencross@mail.mcgill.ca. The sustainability policy can be found at mcgill.ca/sustainability/plan, and the STARS reporting framework can be found at aashe.org.