Decade long push for sustainability at DePaul is finally coming to fruition

Back in November 2011, the former president of DePaul, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, along with select students, staff and faculty, developed the university’s first sustainability plan. Now, over a decade later, the university is in the process of finalizing a new plan that will be released next fall.

The topic of sustainability at DePaul was brought to Holtschneider’s attention after the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, released a report in 2011 comparing the sustainability rankings of 118 universities, in which DePaul ranked 46th, spurring conversations among faculty and staff. In the report, each ranking is determined by scores in 10 categories, in which DePaul ranked fairly low in energy, academics, and financial sustainability.

In response to the increasing push for more sustainability efforts at DePaul, a sustainability plan was released on Nov. 6, 2011 by the Sustainability Initiatives Task Force (SITF) created by Holtschneider. The plan focuseds on five SITF groups: including curriculum, operations, administration and planning, research and engagement.

Hugh Bartling, the director of the sustainable urban development program at DePaul, is an avid advocate for sustainability and participated in the creation of the plan as part of the research working group.

“As a faculty member, I was more focused on things I could do specifically like curriculum development, and the sustainable urban development program came out of those conversations,” Bartling said.

In 2017, Bartling and Mark Potosnak, the chair of the environmental studies department, developed a minor in climate change science and policy.

“There have been a lot of things happening on the curricular level, but there still hasn’t been a lot of buy-in in other elements,” Bartling said. “Still, it hasn’t been at the top of the administration’s agenda for a long time.”

One byproduct of the first plan in 2011 was the desire to have someone working in administration whose main focus was sustainability, according to Bartling.

“We asked the president to create a staff position, and it was never really acted upon,” Bartling said.

Now, a decade later, President A. Gabriel Esteban established the new President’s Sustainability Committee in October 2021, with the goal of developing an institutional sustainability plan that aligns with the values outlined in Pope Francis’ book, Laudato Si.

In the Laudato Si, the Pope calls on each person to take action to stop the degradation of the planet and partake in environmental sustainability. Last year, Esteban signed an agreement for DePaul to become a Laudato Si university, which influenced his push for sustainability at DePaul.

The former sustainability plan was not fully developed, according to Rev. Guillermo (Memo) Campuzano, DePaul’s vice president for mission and ministry. He said DePaul is they are currently rethinking the plan and are trying to put together their first meeting with the stakeholders to assemble a document compiling the committee’s work with the sustainability plan created during the Holtschneider administration.

The first sustainability plan was not entirely implemented after Holtschneider left DePaul. Although faculty members like Bartling and Potosnak were able to incorporate sustainability into the curriculum, and Facility Operations has been working to decrease the university’s carbon footprint each year, efforts to decrease sustainability campus-wide have not been a priority until 2021.

On May 12, there will be a meeting with the President Sustainability Committee and the stakeholders — including the president and provost — to coordinate how to make DePaul a more sustainable institution, Campuzano said.

“We are taking the main pieces of the [2011 sustainability plan] to see what was accomplished, what was not accomplished, and what else we need to do to implement the plan in a comprehensive way,” Campuzano said to The DePaulia.

Lameka Hayes, Student Government Association senator for sustainability, is working on the new sustainability plan to ensure it is representative of student’s opinions for how the university can increase campus sustainability.

“I always sit in on meetings and make sure that the plan is inclusive of students and student needs, and that it’s readable for students, not just faculty, stakeholders and administrators,” Hayes said. “One of the problems that I’ve seen over the last year that I’ve been in this position is there’s always something wrong with the language, it’s just not digestible enough.”

Over the years, there have been a lot of so many documents pertaining to sustainability on campus that it has become confusing for students to discern what the university’s actual plan is, according to Hayes.

When Campuzano joined DePaul’s Mission and Ministry Division in March 2020, he was tasked with the revision of the university’s mission statement, a process that involved over 700 people and encouraged the university to reconsider making sustainability a main priority.

“The key factor that invited us to rethink our sustainability commitment was the process of the revision of the mission statement,” Campuzano said. “We are listening and paying attention to what the community is saying.”

The revised mission statement includes a line emphasizing sustainability as an important element of DePaul’s Vincentian mission and core beliefs.

“Through education and research, the university addresses the great questions of our day, promoting peaceful, just, and equitable solutions to social and environmental challenges,” the revised statement reads.

With the mission statement in mind, the university has made sustainability a primary focus and is in the process of drafting a new plan that should be finalized and released for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Although it has taken many years for the DePaul administration to prioritize sustainability, Campuzano believes it is an issue that has always been relevant.

“The sustainability of life and the sustainability of humanity is profoundly connected with the sustainability of this planet, and we are failing on that,” Campuzano said. “There is one thing we can all agree on at DePaul: sustainability is central.”