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Nearly one year after University President Mark Schlissel announced the addition of a Student Advisory Panel to help advise the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN), a group working to reduce carbon emissions on campus, some members of the student panel claim the Commission has sidelined their role. The Commission’s creation followed months of student activism and protests that urged the University to reduce its carbon footprint.
In Schlissel’s video announcing the creation of the PCCN on Feb. 4, 2019, he directed part of his remarks to students, telling them the Commission would value their input throughout the process.
“All stakeholders will have opportunities to contribute their perspectives along the way,” Schlissel said in the video. “… I especially want our students to know that their insights and contributions will be key to the successful future we are seeking to achieve.”
Schlissel charged the PCCN with creating four advisory panels, including the SAP, to provide various stakeholder perspectives on the Commission’s focus and work. In the past year, most of the panel’s work has consisted of reviewing the Commission’s reports and providing comments addressing additional issues that the members believed merited inclusion.
According to SAP member Grant Faber, a Rackham student at the School for Environment and Sustainability, there was initially the possibility that the student panel might do research for the Commission as well. He said the PCCN’s co-chairs, Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, and Stephen Forrest, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, had indicated this possibility.
“(The co-chairs) hinted at other ways to get involved,” Faber said. “They said that there might even be some research opportunities, things that they would want the Student Advisory Panel to look into to figure out … maybe the Commission would run into some kind of problem and they would task the Student Advisory Panel with doing some sort of basic research.”
The PCCN ultimately delegated this additional research work to eight Internal Analysis Teams (IAT): specialized units composed of both students and faculty that investigated means of cutting carbon emissions. The PCCN’s Fall Interim Report, which was published on Dec. 2, describes this change in the SAP’s intended role.
“It was originally conceived that (student advisers) would also provide research contributions on specific topic areas – a role that is now being fulfilled through student participation on the internal analysis teams,” the report reads.
Three SAP members allege that the PCCN gave them a short period of time to provide their comments and that the PCCN ignored most of their suggestions. They said the PCCN did make changes to official reports in response to some of their comments, but claimed that these revisions were restricted to changes in phrasing. According to the members, the PCCN never provided feedback for why suggestions were excluded and they did not learn which were included until they saw the final published versions.
A member of the panel who requested anonymity due to fear of losing their position on the panel sent an email to The Daily detailing concerns with the PCCN. The member will be referred to as Member 1 in this article.
“Commission members have never once responded to SAP suggestions to ask for clarification or to explain their reasoning for rejecting serious concerns that the SAP has brought to them, as representatives of the student body,” Member 1 wrote.
Another member of the SAP, referred to in this story as Member 2, confirmed this claim and expressed disappointment with the Commission’s lack of a response to their feedback.
“It was frustrating,” Member 2 said. “We felt it was necessary to continue to engage in good faith in this process, but we’re still frustrated with the outcome and the responses that we got from that.”
Faber described the SAP’s confusion after seeing little of their feedback implemented in the reports.
“(We asked ourselves), ‘Are we on the right track? Is there a reason these things haven’t been addressed? Were these things discussed?’ We’ve just kind of been totally in the dark,” Faber said.
In an interview with The Daily, Haverkamp and Forrest explained how the PCCN evaluated feedback to incorporate into the final versions of documents.
“I’d say our process with comments from students was the same as our process with input from members of the Commission, which is that we got feedback from multiple sources and weighed and balanced what we got and as a group put together the document that made the most sense,” Haverkamp said. “We valued the input that we got and look very much forward to serious engagement by them when we have recommendations in the spring.”
According to three SAP members, the PCCN held two meetings with the entire panel in the Winter semester of 2019. The PCCN also asked the two student members of the Commission to attend the panel’s meetings and relay communication back to the Commission. The SAP members said they haven’t met with the co-chairs of the Commission since their second meeting on April 10, 2019.
Haverkamp and Forrest have confirmed they met with the SAP twice during the Winter 2019 semester and have not met with the SAP since April 10. However, they said they have not met with any of the other three advisory panels either.
Since the last meeting, the student panel has attempted to schedule a meeting with the co-chairs at least four times, beginning in the middle of the Fall 2019 semester, according to Member 1 and Faber.
Member 1 and Faber used their suggestions on the Internal Analysis Teams reports to explain how their advice was neglected. They claimed that of the 15 suggestions the SAP made, only three were reflected in the published version.
Faber told The Daily he thought the official reports should have discussed the early focus on quick solutions that would reduce emissions, the dates the co-chairs met with the SAP, summaries of issues raised at community meetings and an explanation for why divestment does not fall under the scope of the PCCN’s work. Instead, the three sets of reports focused primarily on logistical matters, including the purpose and structure of the Commission and a timeframe for how it would complete each phase of its work.
In the Fall Interim Report, SAP members also sought to include an explanation addressing energy procurement and why Camilo Serna, vice president of regulatory affairs at DTE Energy, had a seat on the Commission. Activists raised concerns about the inclusion of a representative from DTE, a major energy utility serving southeast Michigan, when the Commission was announced last February. The University also has an agreement with DTE to purchase renewable energy from the utility.
Member 1 argued the Commission should have taken up the matter in the Fall Interim Report.
“There’s serious concern about the fact that the vice president of corporate strategy of DTE is on the Commission itself,” Member 1 said. “If we publish this report … and nowhere is it mentioned how we’re procuring our energy and who we’re buying it from and how that could potentially be the biggest way that U of M impacts the state of Michigan and emissions beyond its own campuses … it’s basically going to be seen as validating the concerns that have been raised for more than a year.”
The Daily obtained a series of memos written by the SAP including recommendations for the Commission. The memos, dated Oct. 24, 2019, request that the Commission address structural and planning issues in advance of preparing its final recommendations, including a justification for every SAP suggestion the PCCN did not include in its documents.
In an email to The Daily, Faber, one of the five students who signed the memos, said the other members have been discouraged by the PCCN’s general lack of a response and that attendance at SAP meetings has begun to decline as a result.
“Attendance was pretty high in the last couple months of the 2018-2019 school year but really dropped off once we got back for the 2019-2020 year,” Faber wrote. “We used to have ~12 at meetings and now it is down to maybe five or so per meeting. We were told there would be meetings over the summer on something like Skype, but this did not happen once.”
Faber credited this dropping attendance to a feeling that their work did not matter.
“There are intelligent and highly accomplished students on the SAP,” Faber wrote. “My theory is that they stopped coming because they began to see it as a waste of their time rather than out of laziness or a lack of caring.”
Some SAP members said the PCCN never formally discussed the structure of the panel, leaving students confused about how often the panel would meet and what the objectives of the meetings would be.
The two student members of the Commission — Engineering doctoral student Austin Glass and Engineering junior Logan Vear, Climate Action Movement president — serve as liaisons to the SAP, attending both group’s meetings and relaying communications between the panel and the Commission. Both Glass and Vear declined to comment for this article due to confidentiality agreements they signed with the Commission.
Member 2, who also signed the memos, said they wrote the memos in an attempt to clearly communicate their concerns to the Commission.
“We wanted to make sure that all of the concerns that we considered serious were contained in one place to provide an easy response course for the Commission,” Member 2 said. “They were extended in good faith that the Commission was considering student concerns, and the lack of response seems to indicate the opposite of that.”
Three SAP members told The Daily they have received no formal response to the memos they sent to the Commission, though the Commission has recently agreed to schedule a meeting with the panel after weeks of back-and-forth communication.
At the time of the interview, Member 1 expressed frustration at the lack of a response to the memos and the inability to find a time to meet.
“The fact that they have not agreed, not even responded to that request, let alone implemented it, has been really, really discouraging as somebody who has spent a lot of time trying to work within this process and represent and work in good faith,” Member 1 said. “It’s really hard to still believe that we are not actually just being used as a marketing ploy.”
The co-chairs, Haverkamp and Forrest, said shortly after they received the SAP’s memos, they began the process of scheduling a meeting with the SAP to occur in the near future, where they plan to discuss how they assessed each recommendation that they received.
“We absolutely read everything, took it all into consideration,” Forrest said. “We are looking forward also to our meeting with them… that’s the time when we want to go methodically through with them what was considered with each and every recommendation so that we can fill the gaps and understanding about what they think or what they feel became of certain recommendations.”
Haverkamp and Forrest said the advisory panels will become more involved in the future as the PCCN prepares to deliver its final recommendations to Schlissel.
Member 2 said they were hopeful that the upcoming meeting with the co-chairs would be productive.
“Meeting face to face with people is an important way to help ideas be understood between parties, and I think there’s plenty of options and ways the PCCN can make this into a really powerful experience both for the students who are involved and the community and really be able to push towards carbon neutrality with all the resources and brainpower that we have here and in the area,” Member 2 said.
While Member 2 seemed optimistic for the future, Member 1 expressed skepticism in regards to the University being able to take decisive action to lower emissions on campus. They argued that external pressure from activists was driving the institution to address the issue.
“U of M has been way off target in terms of addressing climate change,” Member 1 said. “The only reason we have this Commission in the first place is because of years of student advocacy on this front … I believe that we are only here because of people advocating and forcing the administration to form this Commission and have some sort of response to the claims that they are basically asleep at the wheel as we’re careening towards catastrophe on a global scale.”