Letter To The Editor

Where is RPI's Office of Sustainability?

By Kaitlin Barkley March 30, 2022

There are many wonderful sustainability efforts going on at RPI. From the Senate’s composting committee, to the work of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and various research projects pursued by professors and graduate students, plenty of people are working on changing the world at RPI for the better. These people and projects are great! They are doing outstanding work that’s incredibly important with implications for how we combat the changing climate. But have the majority of people on campus heard about them? Probably not.

You might be surprised to hear that RPI doesn’t have an Office of Sustainability, unlike many of its peers. The farthest we’ve made it in the process towards creating one is a petition going around with just over a hundred signatures (I’m just an interested party). And, sure, there’s always the news reports about different projects and the sustainability studies major at RPI, but those articles or classes are not a replacement for an Office of Sustainability. RPI students are busy–we can’t always keep up with the latest RPI news or build time into our rigid schedules to take the various courses that discuss sustainability. Taking classes is a full-time commitment and, while some can spare the time to find the different ways to get involved, others can’t. There’s no one-stop shop to learn about the different sustainability projects at RPI and how you can get involved; there’s no one place with all the links to the different Discord servers that connect RPI students to work on sustainable projects. This isn’t a failing of these organizations themselves; it’s a failure of the infrastructure of RPI and its lack of commitment to pooling these resources together in one easily accessible place.

An Office of Sustainability would be able to combat the information gap and be an undeniable starting point for students interested in sustainability. During freshman orientation, you’re bombarded with information about all the different things you can do with your time at RPI and all the different resources the school provides. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it went in one ear and went out the other–I was tired and overstimulated by the end of the first day. But, they kept repeating themselves. RAs, LAs, professors, mentors, posters–at some point in the first couple weeks you begin to remember that ALAC is there for tutoring and that you can use the health and counseling centers as needed. You have a starting point to act off. It’s organized. You have a folder with the information buried somewhere in your desk drawer–just in case. You have a website you can visit or a physical place you can go to. Consolidating resources in one place is incredibly beneficial and time saving for students and an office of sustainability could do that for students that are looking for a way to get involved.

It will also give students a way to easily get involved with volunteering efforts or research and find clubs on campus that they could join if they wanted to work on long-term projects already in development. The will of the students is there, and the projects of faculty members are there. A sustainability office could help bridge the gap and help connect individuals committed to making RPI a better place. The office could connect students to the local community, both in Troy and in Albany. It would give community members in the region a direct place to go to ask for student volunteers for their projects and to find out about what projects they could get involved with at the school. Likewise, if a student wanted to start a personal project for sustainability, they could get advice and guidance and look for faculty members with similar experience through the office’s resources. The office could help with funding and advertising and keep track of the various grants available for sustainable projects.

Another point–technology is constantly changing and adapting. As the petition states:

“A qualified Sustainability Director will be able to champion new sustainable methods, technologies, and opportunities to improve our approach to all these pursuits, helping us live up to our reputation as a center for modern innovation. In order to be competitive on the world stage in 2021, the Institute’s sustainability approach must be public and powerful.”

An Office of Sustainability would help ensure that RPI doesn’t fall behind science and New York State law. In 2020, New York State passed a Polystyrene Foam Ban. An Office of Sustainability could have helped the campus prepare for and adjust to the change, just like they could assist the campus in adjusting to new laws that come up for debate going forward. This would protect RPI from unintentionally breaking laws and would assist in keeping the institute accountable.

The Office could also help attract potential students. Climate change is a top issue of our times and younger generations care about sustainable practices. There are thousands of students who are looking to make an impact. They want to see that they can make a change and that their money is helping fund an Institution that is doing good research. A simple website run by the Office of Sustainability would help attract potential students – and potential donors to RPI by providing them all the information they need to know about RPI’s sustainability efforts.

Over my four years at RPI, I’ve met lots of students and lots of professors. I know the faculty and staff and students. I know that we, as a community, care. The best part about attending this school is that I have always been given the impression that people here care about each other and the community we build together. We are committed to one another–I always got the sense that we’re all in this together. However, I have also unfortunately gotten the impression that this sense of community doesn’t extend to administration. It genuinely feels like the administration doesn’t care and that I’m seen more like a dollar sign than a student. I feel like this when I see there’s no Office of Sustainability, when I hear about the understaffing of the counseling center, and when I heard about Student Life being blamed for students’ poor mental health during the first required Arch semester. To me, that’s the simplest explanation for why there’s not an Office of Sustainability. I’d be glad to be proven wrong, but I won’t hold my breath. I can only hope that the new administration will be more willing to implement changes that put the students and the environment first.