Empowering Student Governments: Catalysts for Sustainable Change in Universities

The successful implementation of sustainability initiatives, particularly on a substantial scale within a university, needs not only the concerted effort of individuals but also the strategic deployment of political influence. And on campuses, much of that influence is encapsulated within the world of the student government. Student governments primarily function as intermediaries between the student body and the administration. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of student governments is spent grappling with issues of dormancy or inefficiency. It is imperative to recognize the critical role that student governments can play in steering a university toward the fulfillment of its sustainable development goals.

For example, just a few months ago during its student government elections, American University witnessed the passing of the Green New Deal for American University (GND4AU) with an overwhelming 83% approval rate. This momentous victory transcended mere symbolism; it ushered in a re-envisioning of the narrative surrounding our university’s governance and redefined the essence of meaningful student representation. I was among the members of the Student Government (SG) who embarked on a significant mission — the comprehensive implementation of the GND4AU at scale. This endeavor included the initiation of internships aimed at enabling students to engage in research on and the application of solar energy on our campus. Further, we were able to expand the AU core curriculum to include a more extensive array of environmental courses. Such achievements are clear evidence that student governments wield considerable influence in shaping the trajectory of a university. Previous gains such as a comprehensive report by advocates elected to SG and delivered to the administration and the Board of Trustees, as well fossil fuel divestment from the AU endowment also culminated from extreme student pressure.

Rally for AU Green New Deal before polls opened

Campus administrators do indeed listen to the voices of students, and they do so out of practical necessity. It is the students who, after all, fund their salaries. In matters of environmentalism, administrators are acutely aware of the requirement to take substantive action. My participation in student government, along with other dedicated environmentalists, facilitated a transition from being ardent advocates of the Green New Deal to integral participants in meetings where the discussions of its implementation were discussed. One administrator said, “We will only listen to SG members as they are the elected officials meant to represent the broader student body.” This statement ignited a spark that set an unprecedented, dedicated coalition of advocates for the AU Green New Deal (AUGND) to step forward and seek Senate positions in the upcoming election. Recently, we have noticed real changes in how candidates are running for SG, with most candidates running on Green New Deal platforms. It is an inspiring experience to see how our SG went from having the first person run on an AUGND platform to having a whole slate of GND4AU champions running at this scale. New elections are coming up soon and we are excited to see the outcome.

Imagine the transformative potential in this scenario. It has the capacity to set a precedent that can offer a beacon of hope for environmental champions within academic institutions across the country. This inspiring model just might catalyze their decision to run for student government positions and, in doing so, expedite the process of instituting serious sustainability initiatives. Let us not lose sight of the profound reality that within our student governments resides not only the potential, but the capability, to reshape the path of our universities and, by implication, our planet.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Sal Cottone

Salvatore Cottone is a junior at American University (AU) pursuing a major in Political Science and a double minor in Environmental Policy and Italian Regional Studies. After graduation, he plans to work in climate policy in Washington, DC and help elect climate champions to federal and state office across the United States. He currently serves as a Senator for the Campus At-Large in American University’s student government and serves in the AU Faculty Senate for the Committee on Undergraduate Curriculum. Salvatore is also the Political Team Leader for the Sunrise Movement at American University.