Conversation and Collaboration: Student Voices are Helping Shape Duke’s Climate Commitment

Image of Duke UniversityOn September 29th of last year, Duke University announced its Climate Commitment. In a 90-minute announcement, administrators, alumni, faculty, and graduate students discussed the importance of Duke to be truly committed to the future of the climate and Earth. Sitting in the audience in our large auditorium, surrounded by those I had previously worked with on environmental and sustainability projects, I grew excited to learn that Duke, the institution that had been my home for the previous three years, would be making a difference for the planet. Leading up to the announcement, there were weeks of advertising about an announcement that would shed light on what Duke was doing next. However, by the end of the 90-minutes, I still felt confused about what exactly my university’s commitments were.

In 2007, 15 years earlier, the university signed onto the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and announced that it would be carbon neutral by 2024. In 2009, Duke’s first Climate Action Plan was announced, and the Office of Sustainability continues to put forth climate action plans. Going into the announcement, I was certain that another specific and tangible goal would be set for procurement, literacy, or some other measure related to Duke’s environmental footprint; however, the event ended, the audience began to file out, and I still did not fully understand what the university had actually committed to.

With the help of Duke’s climate commitment’s website, the goals were made a bit clearer — building opportunities in education, research, sustainable operations, external engagement, and community partnerships all focused on climate and sustainability. Then, undergraduates working in environmental spaces began to have conversations about what needed to be done in these five areas, and, more pressing, how student voices and ongoing student environmental efforts would be incorporated into the decision-making process. As more students voiced similar concerns, the Undergraduate Environmental Union (UEU) began to discuss how to formally track them. In an effort to give students an outlet for their ideas, the UEU planned and hosted a hybrid student forum on where we thought the commitment had gone right, wrong, and how, moving forward, undergraduates could and should be involved.

About 30 students attended the forum, and, by the end, we had decided to compile a list of student opinions – categorized by the five efforts the commitment’s website had listed. After a series of working group sessions and requests for review, we finalized the student perspective document and had 13 campus environmental groups, including undergraduates and graduates, sign on. Because a number of students had already been working on sustainability-related projects, we had existing relationships with the administrators in charge of the commitment and found they were very receptive to student feedback. After scheduling a meeting, despite everyone’s busy end of the semester, we were able to talk through the list of student suggestions with the administrators and engage in important conversations about how to continue transparency in the decision-making process and, moving forward, how to meaningfully incorporate student opinions.

One key action item that resulted from the meeting was to help administrators host a town hall open to the entire Duke community. The town hall has just happened, and, with help from students who advertised and moderated the event, vital questions about accountability and transparency were answered. Most importantly, despite still determining exact goals and measures for the commitment, we are now working to formalize and institutionalize structures that will continue to allow for student involvement in critical university decisions, including potential town halls every semester.

Because of this close-knit collaboration, I have been lucky enough to witness a massive amount of work done by both administrators and students to shape the future of Duke. It is vital that other schools announce commitments to the planet, but that student voices are formally incorporated. Based on the experience of working to have undergraduates and graduates included in the climate commitment process, here are some important lessons that I and my peers working in the college campus environmental space have learned.

  1. When an opportunity arises, take it. Although the original Duke Climate Commitment announcement was not detailed, the momentum it provided gave the student body an opportunity to step in and shape future decisions.
  2. Take advantage of already existing relationships. Because of past work and regular communication between environmental organizations on campus, it was easy to build a network of students with similar interests who would have a stronger voice than just one student.
  3. Continue to ask for feedback. Now that we have compiled signatures from a number of environmental organizations, we are moving on to asking for feedback from non-environmental organizations.
  4. Progress is slow, but it is happening. As a first-year student, I began to advocate for curriculum reform and sustainability programming through environmental organizations on campus, and, while it seemed like a hopeless fight, this work helped influence decisions that now are happening four years later.
  5. Do not be afraid to offer unsolicited feedback. Although undergraduates were not originally asked for feedback on the commitment, our feedback was welcomed once we offered it. Administrators often do not move in student circles; their issue might not be a lack of interest, but difficulty finding which students to involve and ask.

RCC Presidential Fellow – Isabel Wood – Duke University

RCC Presidential Fellow Isabel Wood is a senior at Duke University majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with minors in Biology and Cultural Anthropology. This is her second RCC Presidential Fellowship. In 2021-2022, Isabel was the co-lead of the RCC’s Bird Watch and Wonder program. She is also president of Duke’s Undergraduate Environmental Uon where she plans environmental programming, advocates for a greater focus on environmental justice topics, and facilitates collaboration between environmental entities.

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