Sustainability’s future at Brandeis stays uncertain
Former Director of Sustainability Mary Fischer left the role in September, raising questions about what comes next for sustainable initiatives at the University.
Last year, catalyzed by the Year of Climate Action, an optimistic wave of climate and sustainability-related action — which included new courses, extracurricular programming, a new Decarbonization Action Plan, and more — took place on campus. This year, many of these initiatives have come to a grinding halt — not only because the Year of Climate Action has drawn to a close, but also as a result of former Director of Sustainability Mary Fischer’s departure from the University. As the only staff member of the Office of Sustainability, Fischer’s legacy is striking and simultaneously leaves many unanswered questions about the future of sustainability at Brandeis now that there is no one in her role.
The history of sustainability at Brandeis
Brandeis’ commitment to advancing sustainability began in March 2008 with the hiring of its first sustainability manager, alumnus Janna Cohen-Rosenthal ’03, according to an Aug. 26, 2008 article published in the Justice.
During her time as the sustainability manager, Cohen-Rosenthal piloted a number of initiatives to improve sustainability at Brandeis, including implementing a single-stream recycling program, reducing bottled water sales, and creating an Eco-Reps program in which student representatives from each residential quad encouraged their peers to recycle and save energy, according to an Oct. 8, 2008 article from BrandeisNOW.
One of the key initiatives Cohen-Rosenthal worked on was the University’s first Climate Action Plan, which was published in September 2009 and has since been updated in 2016 and 2020. In 2007, Brandeis signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, now known as the Carbon Commitment, a pledge that binds the University to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Climate Action Plans are designed to help the University achieve these goals by outlining mitigation strategies that reduce its dependence on nonrenewable energy sources.
The Office of Sustainability website indicates that the University is “in the process of writing a new climate action plan” — set to be released later this academic year. It further notes that the updated 2020 plan, named “Vision 2030,” had provided recommendations for Brandeis to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, but because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan was never actually adopted. To this day, it remains in draft form.
In September 2012, Cohen-Rosenthal left her position as the sustainability manager to pursue a MBA at the Heller School, as stated in a Sept. 3, 2012 article published in the Justice. After Cohen-Rosenthal resigned, the position was vacant for almost three years until, under growing calls from students to recommit to advancing sustainability on campus, the University hired Fischer to replace Cohen-Rosenthal in July 2015.
Decarbonizing Brandeis and the “disastrous deferred maintenance problem”
The bulk of Fischer’s early work focused on decreasing Brandeis’ carbon footprint, particularly around energy use in campus buildings but with initiatives to address emissions from dining, transportation, and other sectors as well. Brandeis has historically fallen behind its peer universities when it comes to reducing emissions; the Office of Sustainability website discloses that Brandeis’ campus uses 15 to 20% more energy per square foot than its peer universities in similar climate zones.
Almost immediately upon her arrival in July 2015, Fischer piloted the University’s first annual “Turn It Off” days, an initiative that aims to reduce electricity usage on the hottest days of the year. The program asks the Brandeis community to turn off unnecessary lights, shut off computers or other energy-consuming devices, and unplug devices from outlets on peak electricity demand days. Such a response helps the University reduce its carbon emissions and save on its electric bill, according to the Office of Sustainability website.
More recently, as part of the Year of Climate Action, the Office of Sustainability commissioned a study of Brandeis’ energy use and carbon footprint in its efforts to develop a new Decarbonization Action Plan. It also debuted a project tracker in the project-management platform GRITS, which displays Brandeis’ various energy efficiency and infrastructure upgrade projects for public viewing.
Prof. Sally Warner (ENVS) emphasized that improving Brandeis’ infrastructure goes beyond just providing monetary and sustainability benefits but enhancing students’ wellbeing as well. In an interview with the Justice on Oct. 24, she explained that one of the reasons Brandeis may have fallen in the U.S. News & World Report rankings this year is due to the condition of its buildings, particularly its residential halls and their contributions to measures of student satisfaction: “If we improve the heating and cooling in dorms, that could not only help students’ well-being and satisfaction, but it would help reduce our carbon footprint as well and save in the long run on heating and cooling.”
Prof. Sabine von Mering (WGS) agreed, stating in an interview with the Justice on Oct. 26 that “we all know about the disastrous deferred maintenance problem with our infrastructure. And so, of course decarbonization is closely connected to that. Decarbonization of buildings and reducing our carbon footprint is closely connected to taking care of our buildings and our infrastructure on campus.”
Working across all constituencies
Fischer’s work also expanded beyond a focus on decarbonization and improving campus infrastructure to encompass campus-wide engagements with various constituencies and stakeholders.
As the co-chair of the Brandeis Sustainability Committee, Fischer worked extensively with students, faculty, and other staff members. The Brandeis Sustainability Committee, which was created in December 2020 per the recommendation of the President’s Task Force on Campus Sustainability, is charged with “holding Brandeis accountable for improving our sustainability performance in both education and operations,” according to the Office of Sustainability website.
In particular, the Brandeis Sustainability Committee had a key role to play in developing much of the Year of Climate Action programming last year. A summary report released in July 2023 reflects on the impacts of the Year of Climate Action’s new courses, teach-ins, extracurricular programming, and more.
Another task of the Brandeis Sustainability Committee was to review proposals submitted for the Brandeis Sustainability Fund, a $55,000 fund that provides financial support for student-led projects that seek to improve sustainability at Brandeis. The fund was created in April 2010 when three members from Students for Environmental Action brought forth a constitutional amendment that eventually passed with a 68% vote, an Apr. 13, 2010 article published in the Justice wrote. The Brandeis Sustainability Fund is sourced from a $7.50 per-semester fee for each student, as outlined in the Student Union Constitution.
In an interview with the Justice on Oct. 18, former Student Union President Peyton Gillespie ’25 and current Senator Eamonn Golden ’25 described various changes to how the Brandeis Sustainability Fund operates. The proposals will now be reviewed by the Campus Sustainability Fund Board, which consists of five voting members — two representatives directly elected by the student body and one representative each from the Student Union Senate, Allocations Board, and Executive Board — along with the sustainability manager in a non-voting capacity. It is unclear who is filling the role of the sustainability manager, specifically in relation to the CSFB. Gillespie and Golden did not respond to a further request for clarification.
These changes come in light of controversy and frustrations over the degree of student involvement in previous years’ administrations of the Fund. In an April 25, 2023 article published in the Justice, Golden stated that allowing the Brandeis Sustainability Committee to review proposals and giving faculty members like Fischer voting power on the Committee caused funds to be used for purchases that only benefitted facilities, rather than the student body.
Gillespie emphasized that these new changes ensure that these funds “continue to be in student hands and directed by student hands.”
Prof. von Mering pointed out that Fischer had overseen and taken control of the funds due to an initial lack of student initiative: “When Mary [Fischer] came in, the fund was basically sort of sitting there and people weren't really using the money,” she said. “And so we made sure that there was a committee actually overseeing activity on the fund, and we helped students figure out what they wanted to do.”
Fischer also involved students in sustainability work through her creation of the Sustainability Ambassador Program, a paid position within the Office of Sustainability that allowed students to assist Fischer with various student-facing projects and initiatives.
In an interview with the Justice on Oct. 30, former Brandeis Sustainability Ambassador Dina Millerman ’25 described her experience working on campaigns around composting and proper waste disposal, organizing clothing swaps, and tabling on an assortment of sustainability-related topics. She emphasized her role as a liaison between the Office of Sustainability and the student body, stating that Fischer often relied on the Ambassadors’ support to promote events or start discussions on campus: “It was a collaboration between her and us on how to start these initiatives and run them, because as students, we do know the student body probably better than her.”
Millerman also reflected on her experience working alongside Fischer, stating, “[Fischer] did so much. All of us speak [of] and think very highly of her.”
The Brandeis Sustainability Ambassador Program’s fate remains uncertain while there is no one to fill Fischer’s role, though Millerman confirmed that the program no longer exists for the time being. She said that the ambassadors have discussed taking on initiatives on their own, but these have not come to fruition yet: “As far as I know, none of us are doing anything concrete … And I think that has to do purely with time.”
Reimagining sustainability at Brandeis
Prof. von Mering suggested that Fischer’s departure and the search for a new Director of Sustainability is an opportunity to reimagine sustainability as a priority at Brandeis and for students to make their voices heard.
First, the scope of Fischer’s position and where she was situated within administration raises key questions about Brandeis’ commitment to advancing sustainability, Prof. von Mering pointed out. The manager of Sustainability Programs, the role for which Fischer was originally hired, is a staff member of facilities. The job description posted in 2015 indicates that the role faces a dual report to the executive director of facilities and the vice president for Campus Operations. Fischer was named the director of sustainability in August 2021, though it is unclear whether that was simply a change to the position name or a promotion that changed her power and the scope of her duties.
“This [position] needs to get out of facilities; it's not only an issue of facilities. The position needs to be located at a higher level with more power in the administration,” Prof. von Mering said. “My hope would be … administration make[s] a thoughtful decision as to where the leadership on sustainability should be housed at Brandeis so that it can actually be effective.”
In an email correspondence with the Justice on Nov. 10, Vice President for Campus Planning and Operations Lois Stanley explained that the reason Fischer’s role was housed under facilities and initially focused on improving campus infrastructure is because “sustainability-related upgrades have had a significant impact in reducing the campus carbon footprint.” She also acknowledged that “over the years, while the position continued to play a significant role with respect to infrastructure and facilities, it expanded to nearly every aspect of life on campus. [Fischer] was exceptional at this challenging task.”
Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky and Director of Capital Programs Michael McGarry, two facilities staff members, did not respond to the Justice’s request for comment.
Prof. von Mering also expressed a desire to see the Office expand, stating that “it would be great if the [director of sustainability] position could be at a higher level so that someone else could be hired underneath with specific tasks.” She advised examining similar offices at other universities to understand what such restructuring may entail.
In comparison to many of its peer institutions, Brandeis’ Office of Sustainability is rather meager. Middlebury College in Vermont, for instance, has a dedicated sustainability and climate action center — the Franklin Environmental Center — that consists of 13 staff members who work on initiatives such as managing Middlebury’s organic garden The Knoll, developing a Climate Action Program, and conserving the college’s lands. Similarly, Williams College’s Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives has a team of four professional staff members and 19 student interns that work on initiatives related to energy and emissions, food, buildings and landscaping, waste, transportation, and more.
Stanley stated in her email that “office expansion is unlikely due to financial constraints with the university operating budget,” but suggested that “some restructuring may be possible.”
Prof. von Mering argued that whether or not Brandeis chooses to restructure or expand the Office of Sustainability is indicative of the University’s commitments to sustainability. “I think the question becomes, 'How high does the University value sustainability?'” she stated. “Is it really a relatively low staff member in facilities? Shouldn't it be a lot higher? I think it should. I think it is a commitment the University makes to our students’ future — it is high time.”
Yet the person to take on this role is faced with no paltry task; Fischer’s departure and the gaps it leaves also exposes the challenges of implementing long-term sustainability initiatives on college campuses and the ostensible discord that exists between administrative efforts and student organizing around sustainability and climate action.
Prof. Warner reflected that “Mary [Fischer] was in a tough spot because the students saw her as part of the administration, and students feel like the administration is not doing enough with respect to climate and sustainability. But in a lot of ways, Mary [Fischer] kind of straddled the fence between actively working with students on climate initiatives and working with administration.”
Some of these tensions exist due to the challenges of college activism and movement organizing during what is an inherently transient period in students’ lives, Prof. von Mering said, which results in student groups’ inability to maintain longevity and have a broader impact on campus sustainability efforts. “Students take on initiatives and then they graduate,” she remarked. “And rarely are they good at handing over their initiative to the next year. There's also the huge gap of the summer, and so oftentimes people aren't able to identify someone who carries on after the summer. So there's sort of a nine month span of student activity … but staff and faculty are here usually for a longer period and therefore have to see that things actually happen over time.”
A few examples at Brandeis are indicative of this phenomenon. In a Student Work Spotlight featured on the Journalism Program’s website, Gavi Klein ‘22 detailed the challenges of maintaining the student-run rooftop farm on the Leo Gerstenzang Science Library, which currently sits dead and abandoned. The fossil fuel divestment campaign at Brandeis is yet another example of the ebb and flow of student organizing. After a long and arduous decade-long history, the campaign and its spearheading group Brandeis Climate Justice has largely petered out and the University’s divestment status remains unclear.
For Millerman, such hallmarks of student organizing are what made working as a Sustainability Ambassador particularly appealing. “For me personally, it feels like you can do more if you're working directly with the school rather than just with a club,” she stated. However, she also acknowledged that there are “definitely people who would say the opposite. They would say, ‘I feel like I can get more done if I'm not under the control of a boss that works for the school.’”
Yet Prof. von Mering also cautioned students against interpreting these challenges as being a reason to shy away from taking action. “I think the most important message for students is that you have power,” she said. “In the past, my experience has been that students are the ones that make things happen at Brandeis. You can do a lot by banding together and making demands and pushing us to do the right thing.”
Looking to the future
As of November 2023, Fischer’s role has remained unfilled for about two and a half months. Stanley confirmed in her email to the Justice that the University is looking to replace Fischer and that she hopes to have “a new lead for sustainability in [the] spring semester.”
Both faculty and students agree on the urgency of filling this role and many emphasize the importance of hiring someone who has technical experience decarbonizing college campuses, and who can also work effectively with many stakeholders.
Prof. Warner emphasized that she would like to see someone “who is a really good networker, someone who can bring together entities from across campus — including students, faculty, administration, and staff — all together to have conversations about sustainability.”
Millerman agreed, stating that the individual hired “has to be really dynamic and willing to work with a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different offices.”
Being able to collaborate with students is key, according to Prof. von Mering. “Students have their own ideas about things and they like to sort of march ahead, and they don't really want to be told that they can't do something … so it has to be someone who is able to support students’ efforts and also negotiate well with students so that the outcome is beneficial for all.”
But ultimately, what undergirds it all is the urgency of finding someone who will recommit the University to a more sustainable path as the climate crisis worsens. “This [climate change] is going to be with everyone on campus for the next decades,” reflected Prof. von Mering. “And if we consider ourselves an elite institution, then we cannot ignore the responsibility that comes with [that].”