As Wellesley’s Year of Sustainability comes to an end, student activism groups have organized to push the administration to adopt more sweeping campus sustainability practices. On Friday, April 27, about 50 community members gathered outside the Wellesley College Club to pressure the Board of Trustees to adopt a radical sustainability plan for the College, which involves allocating approximately $20 million College funds to convert Wellesley to completely renewable energy. The rally was initiated by Renew Wellesley, a campaign led by Environmental Action at Wellesley College (EnAct), which is pushing for Wellesley to operate on 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.
The rally comes on the heels of Wellesley’s 2018 Wilson Lecture, which featured a conversation between former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore and Sue Wagner ’82, a College trustee and co-founder of the multinational financial corporation, BlackRock. Former Vice President Gore’s lecture was the capstone to Wellesley’s “Year of Sustainability”, an initiative which strives to, in President Paula Johnson’s words, “reimagine and expand sustainability’s important environmental goal.” Throughout the year, Wellesley has been working to create a long-term sustainability plan which was announced to the community in email sent by President Johnson a day before Gore’s lecture. According to the email, the College is aiming to “reduce the college’s greenhouse gas emissions from on-campus activities by 37 percent by 2026 and 44 percent by 2036 from a 2010 baseline and to undertake a long term plan to achieve carbon neutrality.” Although the college has boasted that its new plan is rather ambitious, Renew Wellesley general member Emily LaShelle ’21 believes that it is not enough.
“This is too little, too late. It is not ambitious, and it only references a long-term plan for carbon neutrality but does not set a timeline for that, so the board is not held to that standard,” LaShelle said.
Given the lack of urgency that the College has displayed about sustainability, the Renew Wellesley campaign threatened to drop a banner at Al Gore’s speech which read “Enough talk, Renewable Energy Now.” It also provided the logistical details of the upcoming rally on April 27 which was held at the Wellesley College Club. Within 24 hours of making the threat, President Johnson emailed the campaign and agreed to meet with representatives to negotiate a sustainability plan. Johnson was presented with a petition signed by over 500 students, alumnae, faculty, staff, prospective students, campus organizations and every House Council at Wellesley. The campaign organizers agreed not to drop the banner at Gore’s speech after a meeting with Johnson and trustee and alumna Lawry Jones Meister ’83, where the Renew Wellesley campaign guaranteed two student positions on the Campus Energy Strategy Committee to be appointed by College Government.
While members of Renew Wellesley appreciated the college’s gesture of the meeting, they are concerned that the meeting was simply done to pacify dissent by students on campus. “I think that the administration does a really good job of, is meeting with students. They do prioritize that. But in a lot of ways, it does feel like a way to make students feel heard enough that they stop pushing on these issues,” LaShelle commented.
Although Renew Wellesley did not drop the banner at the Al Gore talk, they did ask the former Vice President a tough question about his views on sustainability. Jess Ostfeld ’20, general member of EnAct and Renew Wellesley was one of five students selected to ask former Vice President Gore a questions after his discussion with Wagner. She asked, “What could the leadership at a small liberal arts college like Wellesley do to accomplish and expand its sustainability goals and help mitigate the effects of climate change while keeping in mind the economic realities?”
In response, former Vice President Gore stated, “I’m always in favor of doing more more quickly, but I also have a deep respect for the fact that your administration and Board of Trustees has to look at a lot of factors that I don’t really know that much about or the particulars of Wellesley and how they are concerned.”
According to LaShelle, in the second administration meeting with Meister, administration made it clear that to achieve the campaign’s demands, there would need to be trade-offs. Renew Wellesley was told that complete sustainability could potentially come at the cost of financial aid.
“It is disgusting to hold over our heads not being able to continue to provide the same kind of financial aid that they offer…what she’s posing here is saying that we can’t take this dramatic action to decrease our impact on climate change, which has an impact on social justice, without giving the same students who would be the most affected by climate change, often, the opportunity to get this education. It’s posing education against the environment,” LaShelle said.
Even though Gore voiced understanding for the college’s current position, he did stress to Ostfeld that student activists have the power to influence future university sustainability policy.
“I would urge you to dig deep for the facts about how these alternatives could be more available sooner than most of the consultants are telling universities now,” he said.
Throughout the talk, Gore emphasized the importance of activism by young people in the fight for sustainability.
“I’m here to recruit you … Every great morally-based revolution that has advanced the cause of humankind has been lead in significant measure by young people and students,” Gore said to the crowd of roughly 1,000 students, faculty, staff and trustees.
In an interview with The Wellesley News, Gore encouraged students to continue organizing, saying, “There is no question that our planet would be better served if more institutions and organizations would commit to similar measures. Anybody who cares about the climate crisis should be vigilant monitors of the organizations they believe in and should do everything they can to ensure these organizations are abiding by the policies and goals they set. I always encourage students to keep pushing their leaders to act with the urgency that the climate crisis requires.”
Gore also encouraged students to keep their momentum in activism outside of college and the Trump administration. In addressing the need for continued organizing, he stated, “Use your vote, use your voice and use your choices to hasten our transition away from dirty fossil fuels to a clean energy future. Call your elected officials, and let them know that this issue is important, and depending on what they say or do, you will either support them or work to defeat them in the next election. Go to town hall meetings; register to vote and convince your friends and family to do the same.”
Renew Wellesley plans to continue its activism until the end of the semester and into the fall semester. According to EnAct vice president, Samantha Hoang ’19, Renew Wellesley will be creating media products to show how climate change has affected Wellesley students.
“Moving forward, we are planning on creating a video that showcases student’s stories on how they or their loved ones have been impacted by climate change or why having Wellesley College move towards renewable energy is important to them,” Hoang said.
For LaShelle, environmental concerns extend beyond Wellesley College’s reluctance to adopt a more sweeping sustainability policy. “We believe that that the true cost of continuing to use fossil fuels for energy as we are doing now is the degradation of human homes, health and lives. This is a social justice issue, and it must be considered as such when weighing the true cost,” she explained.