New VCU sustainability plan met with concern, hope

Green Action protesters march around campus to the President’s Office on April 21, 2023. The club recently issued an open letter regarding the ONE VCU Sustainability Plan on Monday, April 8 out of concern for the plan’s lack of specifics. Photo by Katie Farthing.

Hisham Vohra, Contributing Writer

VCU released its draft of the ONE VCU Sustainability Plan on Feb. 20, with the goal of supporting the well-being of future generations. The plan is being developed by a team of faculty, students and community members to address multiple focus areas including environmental equity, biodiversity, human health and education. 

There are concerns that the current draft lacks detail for meaningful action, according to members of the plan’s committees and VCU Green Action, a student-run organization for environmental advocacy. 

The club, along with VCU professors Beth Kreydatus of the Department of Focused Inquiry, Mark Wood of the School of World Studies and Bill Muth of the School of Education, released an open letter on April 8 to VCU administration regarding the draft plan. 

The letter states “we are concerned that a vague Sustainability Plan only delays the actions that are vital to make a serious contribution to addressing the climate emergency.”

The club will host an event in Monroe Park on Friday, April 26 at 2:00 p.m. to demand commitment, funding, benchmarks and details regarding the ONE VCU Sustainability Plan, according to a press release sent out on April 8. Attendees are asked to wear black and will also be able to provide feedback for the plan. 

“Our upcoming peaceful protest is about putting pressure on our university more than anything. VCU is more inclined to respond to collective actions, and expressing our dissent publicly sends the message to VCU administration that they aren’t doing enough,” Green Action stated in an email sent to The Commonwealth Times.

Michael Donnenberg, a professor in the School of Medicine and a member of the ONE VCU development committee, believes there is a strategic reason for the lack of specificity.

“You got to get the plan through, get it approved by the Board of Visitors — and that the devil is in the details, and there could be a lot of negotiating over that and it could drag on,” Donnenberg said.

He pointed out that this practice is not uncommon with strategic plans but in this case “it seems particularly worrisome because we’ve kind of only done the easy work — the hard work is figuring out how to do it.”

Donnenberg also discussed how current research efforts are not focusing enough on environmental impacts on health. 

“I see a lot of research going on to correct health disparities and the Massey Cancer Center making it one of their top priorities, but I don’t see us leading the way in reducing particulate matter to have our communities healthier,” Donnenberg said. 

Donnenberg mentioned the relationship between socioeconomic status and environmental health. 

“Poorer communities are often closer to the coal or methane-producing power plants and are exposed to much higher levels of these deadly pollutants,” Donnenberg said.

James Fune, a resident of the Randolph neighborhood, is a liaison between his neighborhood association and the ONE VCU Community Advisory Committee. 

Fune feels excited about VCU’s sustainability initiative and discussed non-car transportation as an area for improvement. 

“Biking requires good infrastructure, in Richmond sometimes you don’t have dedicated bike lanes, you have just paint — and you know what they say about paint? It’s not infrastructure,” Fune said.

Fune said he hopes that more people play active roles in making Richmond a more sustainable place to live. 

“It’s our city, we have to learn about it in order to voice your opinion,” Fune said. “I just hope things go to plan, things move efficiently — with any large scale operation it’s going to take time.”

Both Fune and Donnenberg said they are unsure of their role in the sustainability plan in the future but are hopeful they can still be involved.

Mark Wood, an associate professor in the School of World Studies and faculty advisor for Green Action, hopes that VCU forms a dedicated team to implement sustainability plans instead of relying on current faculty and staff to devote their time. 

He recounted that VCU’s search team unanimously agreed to hire an engineering consulting firm to assist the project, but the plan was halted at the final step.

In the process of signing on the firm, VCU decided “not to go with this consulting firm but to depend solely on the resources we have internally,” Wood said.

Wood also mentioned how the University of California system has “committed themselves to divesting from fossil fuels and several other premier universities have also committed to this.”

He said he understands this is a complicated topic but hopes that VCU can accomplish this as well.

Aaron J. Hart, the vice president for student affairs and Meredith Weiss, the vice president for administration responded to concerns about the lack of detail in the draft in an email sent to The Commonwealth Times.

Hart and Weiss stated the draft is a high-level overview and more details will be included in the final plan.

“Additionally, as the plan moves into the implementation phase, progress updates will be shared with the VCU community on a regular basis,” Hart and Weiss stated.

Hart and Weiss stated they appreciate the discourse with Green Action.

We appreciate all the feedback you have provided on the plan via our monthly meetings, online feedback form submissions, and the document you shared with tracked suggestions,” Hart and Weiss stated, addressing Green Action directly.

Andre Ardelan, a first-year medical student, hopes VCU can follow the same path as his undergraduate institution, the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I think at the very least committing to a sustainable future is something they could do,” Ardelan said. “All colleges should, the college that I went to did, so why not VCU?”

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