In Case You Missed It: Universities of Wisconsin Annual Sustainability Meeting 

In our In Case You Missed It series (also known as ICYMI), student interns from the Office of Sustainability offer reflective reports on sustainability-related events and lectures at UW–Madison. The following entry is by a special guest, Anna Silverman, who is the Sustainability Co-Coordinator for the ASM Sustainability Committee. 

On October 12th and 13th, students, staff and faculty hailing from different Universities of Wisconsin sustainability departments convened on the UW La Crosse campus. Representatives from UW Lacrosse, UW Madison, UW Oshkosh, UW Stout, UW Milwaukee, UW Green Bay, UW Stevens Point and UW River Falls engaged in conversations about current sustainability efforts at the Universities of Wisconsin and strategized about future developments. 

Due to the overarching focus on energy for the 2023 meeting, most of the panel discussions and presentations centered on decarbonization efforts and the implementation of renewables. TRANE Technologies, a sustainable engineering and environmental consulting firm, presented first about an equitable and interdisciplinary transition to clean energy across economic sectors. They stressed the benefits of stakeholder engagement across political lines through alignment of interests and leveraging competencies, where the strength of people and firms are directed towards a specific purpose in a larger plan.

Conference attendees pose for a group photo in front of poster boards in the conference ballroom.
Conference attendees gather for a group photo.

In the first of a series of presentations about UW schools’ renewable energy projects, UW Eau Claire Sustainability Coordinator Lily Strehlow presented the university’s plan to develop geothermal energy systems. UW-Lacrosse, UW-Platteville, and UW-Madison also gave presentations about solar energy projects, both on university buildings and in off-campus locations, such as UW-Madison’s Two Creeks solar facility.

Two representatives from the Universities of Wisconsin administrative leadership team, Sean Nelson and Alex Roe, spoke about new budgeting and action plan development for sustainable goals at the systems level. After a student presentation on sustainability in February of 2022, the Board of Regents started to mobilize toward climate action. This was also in part due to the negative impact of a lack of outward and operational sustainability at UW schools.

“Students are choosing schools with sustainability in mind,” said Nelson, who serves as Vice President for Finance and Administration. “We are losing students [due to our lack of sustainability efforts].”

Conversations about intersectional environmentalism, sustainability in education, and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the momentum of sustainability efforts took place during workgroup sessions. Conference attendees congregated around poster sets throughout the room that included an outline of the objectives and plans of different system-level sustainability working groups next to a blank poster for suggestions. These groups included transportation, academics and curriculum, procurement, STARS reporting, building design, and energy, climate and resilience

Lou Flores is a student at UW Stevens Point who runs two free thrift stores through their Office of Sustainability and is the Environmental Sustainability Affairs Director for the Student Government Association. For them, these working group sessions were emblematic of the cooperation necessary for productive environmental activism.

“Everyone has their own experiences with the struggles [of working in sustainability]. Something we were talking about…is being able to connect with each other to avoid burnout,” Flores said. “We’re all working toward the same goals, we could work together instead of differently and then it’ll be easier on us individually.”

Centering Students

UW-Madison sent representatives from the Office of Sustainability, the ASM Sustainability Committee, Housing Sustainability, Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now (CLEAN), and other student organizations. Three UW-Madison students, Maya Barwick, Evie Sellers, and Melina Nguyen, presented on the student panel on Friday. This event was a highlight of the conference for many.

6 students form a pyramid in a conference room with 2 students standing next to them to spot
UW–Madison student representatives pose for a picture at the end of the conference.

UW System Sustainability Coordinator Hayden Henderson gave opening remarks for the student panel. 

“[These students] are making the learning experience transformative for students on their campuses. The way that they teach, I’m sure, is more effective than most professors even do. I really respect all of these students as true subject matter experts,” Henderson said. “They are the reason that we will be able to breathe tomorrow.”

The co-chair of Students For Sustainability at UW La Crosse, Blythe Pollard, spoke on the panel about the club and their vision for a sustainable future.

“It is important to have a community on campus of students who all care about this topic and can connect and share interests with each other. That’s how change begins.” Pollard said. “We are all capable of change, whether it is individual actions or group and institutional efforts. But what are we collectively working towards?”

Pollard asked provocative questions about what kind of world we are looking to create and what collaboration looks like. For them, the central focus on energy and decarbonization of the conference left out other key components of sustainability that better pertain to their interests. 

“I think it’s really good to have everyone come together and share their ideas,” Pollard said. “I, personally, am not the most interested in clean energy…I’m a lot more focused on food and social justice and native plants, biodiversity, things like that. I think those things are often forgotten about.”

Many student attendees agreed that broadening the discussion at the conference to include topics like food and education would be a beneficial future development. Another suggestion made was, simply, to invite more students.

Meredith Agnew is a student at UW Oshkosh, where she works as a Residence Life Sustainability Intern. She attended last year’s conference at UW Green Bay and appreciated the increase in student attendance this year.

“Last year’s conference … didn’t have as large of a student presence so it was very nice to network and meet other students in the same field,” Agnew said. “In the future, I’d like to see even bigger of a student presence and a continuation of the initiatives that the students here today care about.”