Timothy Spurlin: 'U' severely lacks transparency and accountability on climate action

Monday, April 1, 2019 - 4:45pm

On Friday, March 15 some 3,000 students from the University of Michigan and high schools in the Ann Arbor area gathered on the Diag as a part of the Global Climate Strike. The strike was inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and was a coordinated effort by students internationally to walk out of classes and demand action on climate change. In Ann Arbor, the rally was followed by a march around campus, with its final stop at the Fleming Administration Building where protesters sat for a peaceful sit-in. Organizers of the strike had a list of demands for University President Mark Schlissel, but understood he would be unable to immediately commit to a blanket list of demands. The protesters’ primary goal was to create a dialogue with Schlissel, where he would agree to a public meeting in order to discuss the University’s role in combating climate change openly. The sit-in lasted seven and a half hours. However, it did not go according to plan.

Instead of talking with the students or agreeing to a public meeting at a later date, administrators, and eventually police, asked students to leave. When they refused to move and demanded their voices be heard, administrators called the police and 10 students were arrested for trespassing, including two minors from local high schools.

The handling of these peaceful protesters highlights the consistent lack of transparency and accountability from the administration on its commitment to acting on climate change.

The turnout of the strike shows how important this issue is to the local community and students and the subsequent sit-in emphasizes the commitment students at our university have to climate justice. Back in November, many students and faculty applauded Schlissel as he announced he would put together a commission on carbon neutrality. Today, we are simply asking he make the process transparent and commit to serious and effective deadlines.

I reached out to participants in the strike and peaceful protests for comments on how they view the situation. LSA senior Olivia Perfetti, one of the 10 students arrested following the sit-in, is the policy chair for 2018-19 for Students for Clean Energy, a cosponsor of the Washtenaw Climate Strike. In an email interview with The Daily, Perfetti commented what went through her mind when she heard the University call the police.

“I want to emphasize how reasonable our request was: a one-hour public meeting with President Schlissel moderated by a student. This meeting was necessary because previous meetings have all taken place behind closed doors, been off the record, had moderators who filtered questions or excluded discussion about the Central Power Plant (CPP) expansion and divestment from fossil fuels. We agreed to leave on this condition and felt sure that our request would be granted because it was so straightforward.”

She continued: “What possible reason could President Schlissel have for refusing? I personally was certain that he would agree rather than have so many young people arrested. Clearly, I was wrong. I probably should have been nervous when the arrests started.” Perfetti continued, outlining how she ended up feeling calm: “First, being with other organizers gave me a strong sense of solidarity: This is the power of collective action. And second, the unreasonableness of President Schlissel’s refusal strengthened my conviction to stay. I had no doubt that we were in the right, so I had no trouble standing my ground.”

Naina Agrawal-Hardin, a 16-year-old student at Washtenaw International High School, was a lead organizer for the Washtenaw County Climate Strike and speaker at the event. She said in an interview that due to travel plans, she was unable to attend the sit-in, but kept in constant communication with the participants. “When we found out that police were being called, I was amazed at how calm everyone stayed. It portrayed how much they were willing to sacrifice for this cause. I know people were scared, but to me, from the outside, it almost seemed like their resolve strengthened, and it was clear that they weren’t going to give up.”

The events of March 15 should be a wake-up call to everyone sitting on the sidelines about climate action. Students like Perfetti and Agrawal-Hardin are an inspiration to the rest of us to stand up for what we believe and not to compromise on what is right.

The University’s decision to avoid and deflect accountability is a travesty and it needs to do a better job communicating with students. It is unacceptable that Schlissel continues on without any direct interaction with stakeholders in the community. The University claims it is committed to fighting climate change and going carbon neutral, yet refuses to set clearly defined and easily measurable goals for this endeavor. But this cannot be the case forever. The people have spoken, and the time to act decisively on climate change is now.

Timothy Spurlin can be reached at timrspur@umich.edu.