Schlissel addresses student concerns at carbon neutrality public session

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 - 9:26pm

University President Mark Schlissel answers questions about future emissions reductions and climate solutions from the University community at Rackham Tuesday.

University President Mark Schlissel answers questions about future emissions reductions and climate solutions from the University community at Rackham Tuesday. Buy this photo
Darby Stipe/Daily

Approximately 150 students, faculty and community members attended a special public session with the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality Tuesday in Rackham Auditorium. Featuring University President Mark Schlissel as the main speaker, the event was moderated by three commission members: Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability; Engineering junior Logan Vear; and Rackham student Austin Glass.

The public session followed the arrest of 10 people during a climate strike in March, during which students requested an open dialogue with Schlissel and other administrative members. All members of the commission were present at the event. The event started with opening remarks before moving into a question and answer format, where attendees could directly ask Schlissel questions or submit cards with questions to be read by the moderators.

In the wake of the University’s announcement of their intention to purchase renewable energy from Michigan-based company DTE Energy, Overpeck referenced the importance of making lasting efforts to promote carbon neutrality beyond campus.

“We’re really all in this together,” Overpeck said. “Not just trying to find ways to make the University carbon neutral as fast as we can, we just got out first big wind purchase announced today, but finding ways to help society, other universities, our community we live in, the state of Michigan, the nation, go carbon neutral much faster than anybody has really been thinking. It’s our job to make that happen.”

Before taking questions from the audience, Schlissel said he was excited to receive feedback from students regarding the effort towards carbon neutrality.

“I’ve been hearing from students and faculty, so I really welcome the opportunity to hear from you directly to tell you a bit about what I’m thinking and get your advice as we move forward,” Schlissel said. “I can certainly say the advocacy significantly by students around the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate change is coming through loud and clear, and I want to spend this hour really listening to you and hearing directly from you.”

Schlissel said community input is key to his understanding of the issue of climate change and achieving carbon neutrality on campus and beyond.

“I do not pretend to be an expert on climate change and global warming and greenhouse gases — I’m a biologist and a medical doctor and I’m responsible for making the best decisions I can on behalf of our community,” Schlissel said. “When I don’t have expertise, I rely on people that really do, so I really welcome everybody's input.”

Though appreciative of the event, Climate Action Movement member Jonathan Morris, an Environment and Sustainability graduate student, said he was disappointed it took prolonged student activism for the dialogue to take place.

“A lot was talked about,” Morris said. “I appreciate that we were able to have this event and it’s pretty unfortunate that it took people sitting it at Fleming for seven hours and 10 students getting arrested for him to agree to this event, because that’s what people were asking for.”

When asked about legitimacy of using natural gas in attaining carbon neutrality, as well as the effectiveness of the new Central Power Plant expansion, Schlissel said it would be valuable to look at the University’s immediate needs while keeping in mind longer term goals.

“I think it is important to account honestly for the contributions that this new combined power turbine make to our efforts around carbon neutrality,” Schlissel said. “The situation we’re in is we remain dependent, for at least the short intermediate term, to make the steam that is necessary on our campus.”

When asked about the University’s progress on carbon neutrality in comparison to other big schools such as Stanford University and Ohio State University, Schlissel said every place is different, and that comparable universities are not necessarily as far ahead.  

“Every university is different than every other,” Schlissel said. “Every university, as they advertise their effort for accounting greenhouse gases, uses a different set of definitions. We count everything: We have a very large health system, we have thousands of residence hall beds, we have steam as a source of heating. The situation here isn’t the same as it is in California. It isn’t sunny as much and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.”

Audience members immediately interjected, interrupting Schlissel and calling out questions, in which Schlissel attempted to calm the crowd before continuing to explain his commitment to carbon neutrality on campus.

“I’m committed to get us to neutrality,” Schlissel said. “I’m asking this group to help us figure out how to do it and do it as quickly as possible. The example is brought up pretty often of Ohio State University, who is just down the road sort of, who is given a lot of credibility in this community — surprisingly. I don’t think they’re ahead of us in their efforts around carbon neutrality. I think you have to look at the data.”

Tegwyn John, LSA senior and CAM member, categorized the atmosphere during the question and answer session as disorganized and combative.

“I think people were clapping to the questioners, and nobody applauded Schlissel’s answers,” John said. “I don’t think anybody in the room today felt like they were actually being listened to or getting genuine answers to their questions.”

Alice Elliott, an Environment and Sustainability alum, said she felt the event led to some conflicting statements from Schlissel regarding practices and expectations for achieving carbon neutrality.

“He talks about the University being the leader and the University setting the stage for carbon neutrality and for climate action, but then immediately says, ‘Oh, it has to be everybody,’” Elliott said. “It’s confusing to me why he seems to want to have the University be both the leader and the best in climate action, but then says that you need to do more, and recycle, and be lobbying and register to vote. If we’re here, if we sat in the (Fleming) office and we got arrested, we’ve done all those things already.”

Schlissel was asked repeatedly whether the University would divest from companies that produce fossil fuels. Schlissel said divestment lowers the value of the University’s endowment, which is necessary to fund beneficial activities and supplies on campus.

“Essentially, we don’t divest,” Schlissel said. “It’s not this cause, it’s essentially all causes … We get more payout from our endowment here than we get money from the state of Michigan, so it’s really critical for us as a robust university… If we begin the process of narrowing what the endowment can invest in, based on very valid arguments and concerns from sincere people, the ability to invest shrinks, the value of the endowment goes down and the institution suffers. We’re just not going to divest.”

Morris said the refusal to divest represents a severe conflict between the University’s carbon goals and their desire to retain the value of the endowment, criticizing Schlissel for refusing to divest.

“This is the most egregious thing the University is doing,” Morris said. “He says this is an existential threat, that young people’s lives are at stake, that he believes the science, he believes the gravity and the unique existential challenge of this issue, and yet this university has a billion dollars directly invested in the fossil fuel industry.”

In fact, the University does not invest in the “fossil fuel industry,” but rather in “natural resources,” which are not restricted to fossil fuels.

During the meeting, a faculty member noted a letter from faculty sent to Schlissel calling for more action on climate change. The letter was sent a 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and had more than 300 faculty signatures. In the letter, the signatories urged Schlissel to reconsider the expansion of the Central Power Plant and divesting from companies with ties to fossil fuel production. It also emphasized its support of student climate activists.

According to Schlissel, holding himself and the administration accountable for achieving their neutrality goals is important, but creating the system of accountability can be complex and difficult.

“I cannot make a commitment in advance to say I will do everything this commission on carbon neutrality suggests,” Schlissel said. “I would welcome a set of recommendations that struck all the right balances and got us to neutrality absolutely as fast as humanly possible while still maintaining the essence of the University and our world value system. It’s a commission that makes recommendations. I would be giving away the authority of the president and the regents to tell the commission, ‘Tell us what to do and we’ll do everything,’ but I want them to tell us what they think we should do, and then we’ll discuss it and implement the things we can and get to the goals we share as quickly as possible.”

John said she hopes the event leads to further transparency between the administration and students in relation to their carbon commission goals.

“That's something that has been lacking on committee level, on the presidential level, on the regents level,” John said. “The University does not like to talk about why and how and where it’s spending its money, and I don't think they can afford to be that opaque anymore. Lives are at risk, and now the student body is looking at their future being devoured by rising waters and they’re going to have to start having those conversations in the open.”