My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…
Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?
I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.
I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?
The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?
The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.