As the Northern Arizona University faculty senate sent a letter Friday encouraging action on climate change to president Rita Cheng, the former sustainability manager said she will no longer stay silent on the subject of the university's sustainability efforts.
Ellen Vaughan, who resigned her post as NAU's sustainability manager in the office of sustainability on Oct. 9, said one reason she left was a lack of commitment to fighting climate change on the part of upper administration.
Specifically, Vaughan pointed to NAU’s administration dragging its feet on the university's climate change plan.
“That plan left my desk in 2015 and it’s been (expletive) ever since,” Vaughan said. “[Issues of sustainability are] just so not a priority for this administration.”
Vaughan was the last full-time employee in the university's office of sustainability, an office that only five years ago was home to as many as five full-time staff members. On top of herself, the office also employed someone coordinating sustainability efforts in the classroom and a residence hall coordinator working with students in dorms.
Another three employees, Vaughan said, were working to increase energy efficacy and get APS rebates, though two of them were scheduled to be let go when the project they were working on ended.
But one by one, Vaughan described how positions were cut or simply never refilled after an employee left.
“It just felt like we were moving in the wrong direction,” Vaughan said, adding that many of the unfilled positions were supposed to be dedicated to saving the university money through increased efficacy.
Daniel Okoli, president for Capital Planning and Campus Operations at NAU, disagreed with Vaughan's assessment of sustainability efforts at the university.
"NAU is more committed to sustainability than ever and we are even more committed to working in an environment that considers the entire university," Okoli said via email.
Staff shake up
By the time she left, Vaughan was relying on about 20 student workers to do jobs that had previously been done by full-time employees. In Vaughan's absence, the practice has continued with Emerald McCormick, an undergraduate senior and chair of the Green Fund Committee, now overseeing the student staff.
McCormick, who started as Vaughan’s intern, is now essentially the only paid employee in the office, despite the fact that Vaughan gave the university one month's notice prior to her departure.
NAU is still working to fill Vaughan’s former position, according to an email from Okoli.
“In addition to the new interim manager for the Office of Sustainability, there are two other individuals taking on aspects of the sustainability effort on campus,” Okoli said. “The position of interim manager for the Office of Sustainability was posted several weeks or so ago, and interviews will be conducted in the coming weeks.”
At the moment it is not known what the timeline for bringing these positions online might be or if they will be full or part time. Originally, NAU was looking to replace Vaughan with a single part-time position that would work less than 20 hours a week, which would allow the university to avoid paying benefits.
“We see this transition period as an opportunity to review current operations to help us determine the optimal staffing and functionality that ensures NAU’s sustainability efforts are holistic and not limited by a singular approach,” Okoli said. "Continued engagement with all of campus will help us broaden what has been a narrow view of sustainability by some to achieve a shared understanding of sustainability goals on campus, and ensure we are even more successful as a campus community."
Climate change plan
The university has also been dragging its feet when it comes to the implementation of a climate change plan for NAU, Vaughan said.
In 2010, the university released a plan with the goal of reducing the university’s carbon footprint to become carbon neutral by 2020.
But this plan did not lay out what specific actions NAU should take to reach the goal and Cheng commissioned the creation of a new climate change plan.
That new plan, created by the firm Noresco, set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2040 and cost the university about $12,000, according to Okoli.
But again, although the plan was completed in 2015, upper university administration dragged their feet in its implementation, Vaughan said.
Vaughan described meetings in which upper administrators arrived having not read the plan. Other times, they simply didn’t show up to meetings.
The administration also avoided naming a date for the climate plan's implementation, McCormick said. This led McCormick, and other sustainable-minded students, to ask administrators earlier this year not for the date the plan would be implemented, but the date administration would know the date the climate plan might be implemented.
But now, administrators have said the university may need to start over completely with an entirely new climate change plan, news that McCormick said she and other students found “pretty devastating.”
“The Noresco report made assumptions that were not validated,” Okoli said. “A new report will need to take into account what is currently being spent to make the NAU campus more sustainable. It will also need to align projected future expenditures on sustainability projects with the realities of the university’s overall budget.”
Faculty senate letter
On Friday, the university’s faculty senate approved the delivery of a letter to Cheng on the importance of the university taking action on climate change.
In that letter, the faculty senate asked the university to commit to the implementation of an updated and completed climate change plan with clear goals and ways to measure the progress of such a plan.
The letter also asked the university to approve funding of two dedicated positions within the office of sustainability, one focused on facilities and energy on campus and another focused on providing students with opportunities to address the climate change challenge.
“We need to think about are we going to be relevant as an institution,” said faculty senator and sustainable communities lecturer Michael Caulkins, who also helped draft the letter. “It’s morally reprehensible to not act.”