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PSU’s conservation challenge

A sustainability effort or just a publicity stunt?

Written by | March 5, 2013

Photo by Miles Sanguinetti.
Photo by Miles Sanguinetti.

Portland State is currently competing in a national residence hall conservation challenge. The Campus Conservation Nationals started on Feb. 18 and will keep going until the start of “dead week” on March 11.

Right now, the university is competing against more than 175 colleges and universities across the U.S. looking to show off their “greenness” by reducing energy and water use in campus residence halls as well as by lowering total greenhouse gas emissions on campus.

CCN is the nation’s biggest electricity- and water-reduction competition for colleges and universities. The competition focuses on on-campus housing because residence halls account for a large chunk of the energy use,
water use and total greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to a university’s ecological footprint.

Instead of counting all on-campus housing options as part of the challenge, PSU’s chosen to use only the Broadway Housing Building, Ondine Residence Hall and Stephen Epler Residence Hall. The three dorms are competing against each other and will then collectively represent PSU in the national competition. What this means: Only 30 percent of PSU-owned residence halls are represented, but we all will have the unequivocal pleasure of sharing whatever successes or failures the exclusive three end up with.

So what does this exclusive club of Ondine, Broadway and Epler have in common? They are where First Year Experience students—aka freshmen—live.

To put it bluntly, PSU has found a cute way to leave out the majority of its students while targeting a tiny demographic of still-acne-ridden teenagers. Granted, we get a lot of funding for these blemished youths, but it still seems preferential, like the university’s playing favorites despite the fact that, according to the 2011–12 Annual Statistical Report, PSU’s average student age is 27.9 years.

The challenge may also seem redundant to residents living in Epler, which is already designed to “capture the benefits of natural elements” according to PSU’s website. The dorm uses fans to preheat air and relies on its building design to eliminate the need for air conditioning.

Broadway also has many energy-efficient designs. It uses low-flow fixtures that reduce water usage by as much as 20 percent. The building also saves on energy by using high-efficiency lighting in common areas, heat-controlling window films, Energy Star appliances and a slew of other eco-friendly trimmings.

Essentially, PSU has entered its students into a competition that centers on reduction even though we’ve already reduced our
“footprint” just by choosing those housing options in the first place.

PSU’s website further insults its students by asking: “When was the last time you dined by candlelight?” Considering the fact that candles are among the restricted items in all PSU housing, it’s irrational and insulting to ask housing residents why they aren’t choosing to use them.

Environmental awareness and sustainable practices contribute to PSU’s appeal—are, perhaps, the university’s biggest appeal. Holding an arbitrary competition that only a select group of students can participate in seems more like a publicity stunt than an honest attempt at creating a better, more sustainable world.

Still, the conservation challenge isn’t entirely exclusive to our already sustainably inclined housing residents. There have been a handful of campus-wide events that every student who stumbles upon can participate in. Key word: stumble. It’s not like the university’s really publicizing this.

Coming up on March 11 is a “drop a load of e-waste” day in Ondine’s lobby at 1912 SW Sixth Ave. Students can bring their old cell phones, laptops and other motley electronics they no longer use, and PSU will recycle them.

There’s also a “Spring Community Carnival” at the Native American Student and Community Center to celebrate sustainability with food, games and “fun.”

Regardless of the university’s motives behind the competition, and its somewhat futile choice of residence halls, perhaps more students will get into the conservation spirit and take it upon themselves to make their own homes more sustainable.

7 Responses

  1. Thanks for covering this topic. My team coordinates the conservation challenge along with a variety of colleagues within PSU’s sustainability programs and other campus partners.

    There were some specific reasons for choosing Broadway, Epler, and Ondine besides being “cute”:

    – They are currently the only housing buildings that can measure energy usage. When funding is available, meters can be installed in all buildings so that all residents can participate.

    – Broadway and Ondine are our largest residence halls. With limited capacity to support efforts through our EcoReps program, we want to work in the most centrally-located halls to have the largest impact. Epler was added this year, because the measurement tools are available and we had a partnership with a resident who could take on the role.

    – We partner with classes. All of the living learning communities and Freshman Inquiry classes are located in these buildings.

    – We are focusing on freshman halls, because we want to support student community building and participation with students who will hopefully be at PSU for at least four years. They can continue to make an impact by modeling sustainable behaviors and participating on campus. Many of the students who have participated went on to leadership positions within Residence Life as Resident Assistants or Learning Community Assistants.

    In past year, we did not participate in the national challenge. This year, we had the capacity to connect more with our partners at universities so we can share information and learn more. I’m not so keen on the concept of a competition, but we also want to form strong partnerships with other universities and share best practices. The competition part of the challenge is not really the point of participation.

    I look forward to the day when all residence hall buildings are able to participate in the challenge!

  2. Dear Stephanie,

    Thank you for publicizing our work in Campus Conservation Nationals. I am the student coordinator for EcoReps and have the pleasure to work with 9 amazing students from a variety of class years. This year’s EcoReps live in Ondine, Broadway, and Stephen Epler…the very buildings we chose to include in the competition. These three buildings represent 68% of the students living in residence halls, so even though we only chose 3 out of 12 buildings, we included a vast majority of residents.

    With one staff member (me) with a part-time position to coordinate EcoReps it would have been very difficult to include the rest of the residence halls in this year’s competition. Next year we would love to have EcoReps that live in all of the residence halls, as well as, include all of the buildings in our competition efforts. Without representation in each building it would have been very difficult to include them. Additionally, the campus Utilities Manager is donating time out of his busy schedule to collect the data for us. This is a time consuming process and was difficult for us to coordinate for even just three buildings. I understand your frustration at not including other buildings, but it was not because we did not want to be inclusive–simply due to human resource and time constraints.

    This is our first year participating and it has been a great opportunity for us to connect with other Universities, students in the residence halls, and people in many different courses on campus. We hope to expand efforts next year to include more of the residence halls and courses.

    The responses that we have received from residents in Stephen Epler and Broadway–both LEED certified buildings–have been positive. People have walked away with new techniques for saving energy, bags of laundry detergent that they made from non-toxic materials, as well as a positive attitude for why sustainability matters. Its amazing that the university has built these LEED certified buildings, but both the university and students can do more to reduce energy and water. There has been strong participation from both of those buildings. Broadway residents have reduced the amount of electricity they have used by 10% and Stephen Epler residents have reduced water consumption by 16%!

    To date, we have reduced 16039 kWh & 40,059 gallons of water. That equates to 7333 lbs of CO2 and over $1000 in savings.

    I hope that the next time you publicize opinions about our work that you would take the time to interview someone involved to figure out the reasons for why we choose to do the things that we do. We have great opportunities to connect with students here, but many barriers that make this work difficult. It is offensive to deem freshman, “acne ridden teenagers,” when they are some of the most enthusiastic, driven, and knowledgeable people on our campus. We are lucky to have them as a part of this community.

    The EcoReps have put heart and soul into creating meaningful events as a part of the competition that have positively engaged our community members in fun, interactive, and creative experiences. I hope that you are able to join us in our next few events, perhaps then, you can understand what the competition and EcoReps is all about.

  3. The sustainability efforts on campus are primarily an expensive (paid by students) gimmick to improve the image of PSU. Case in point: “electric avenue” electric car parking and charging area- I doubt any students or under-paid faculty at PSU can afford to own an electric car (or to fund parking for them). Luckily for the Admin, there are ambitious students interested in sustainability around campus who work with little or no pay while the college takes the glory. Does sustainability matter? Yes. But this is really just a distraction from the lackluster academics and shameful graduation rate at Portland State.

    • Lu, I hope you do not truly think that there are not sustainability efforts on campus run by students, with no administration (aka. no funding), that are actually campaigns to measurable reduce the impact of the university and the students that attend PSU. As Campus Coordinator of one major sustainability effort on campus, and participant in many others, I can say from experience that administration may tout the green features of PSU, but the real work comes from students will a passion and drive to make the world better while studying at University. Campus Conservation Nationals is the work of a small group of students to make measurable reductions in energy and water usage. This article is uninformed, biased, and has the completely wrong idea of what CCN is, which might give you a false impression of who runs sustainability efforts on campus and why they are being done. I hope you get involved with the many student run efforts to make the campus a better place.

  4. In addition to my above comment, I would like to add my suggestion that you take in to consideration what Jennie and Heather have said and at least make an attempt to understand the motived behind whatever you are throwing you opinions at. I would hope that PSU’s paper would have higher standard for its stories, and makes me wonder how much other information is falsified by poor reporting and writing. As one of your ‘blemished youths’ I would love to explain sustainability efforts on campus and show what kind of motivated and competent groups have done quality work to improve campus. Clearly, almost any group on campus can produce better work than what you have done here, but there are many many groups who have produced amazing results for sustainability at PSU and in Oregon. I hope you do not continue to falsely insult and misunderstand the work of your peers, and get your facts straight before you write another article.

  5. I’ve worked in PSU’s sustainability programs for 5 years now. The initiatives started with staff borrowing staplers from other departments and being in the basement of SRTC. The funding that was given toward sustainability through the Miller Foundation was designated by the administration toward sustainability because it was an important role for our university to play as part of Portland and because of the students, faculty and staff we attract. I can speak from personal experience that the decisions were made because of care for our community. Of course, funding always brings challenges and things are not perfect.

    Also, nearly all sustainability efforts are no longer funded by students. Some student activities come from student fees. Recycling was the last program to be moved out of the student fee process.

    The administration is not “always” the enemy. I’ve been a student advocate and a staff, and both have their own strengths.

  6. About electric vehicles – yes, very controversial. I have read that the target market for EVs is paid $125,000 per year. This is unfortunate and inequitable. It might not be the cure-all for climate change, but maybe one “monoculture” solution will not be the answer. As these stations come to the market and the technology develops, the prices may come down. A recent poll on Sustainable Business Oregon showed that their readers would consider buying an EV when the prices come down before all other factors. We do need to remember that the new technologies are going up against the most destructive companies on the planet and trying to work both inside and outside of the system to make change. We can all begin wherever we are from our own perspective and within our own peer groups.

    Our administration is trying to bring the talent out of Portland, to cultivate possibility and creative solutions. My co-workers inspire me every day with creativity, and they work hard. There are many more selfish endeavors they could have chosen besides working at a public institution.

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