There was unfortunate news yesterday that the university was cutting its Ecohouse program, which was a sustainable living and learning program for students. The Diamondback’s Staff Editorial today makes a solid case for the university to place greater priority on making Ecohouse work. I’m posting it below.
Staff editorial: Betting on the House
In the midst of budget cuts, furloughs, class eliminations, resource reallocations and department mergers, it might seem that shutting down EcoHouse — a living and learning program based in New Leonardtown that educates students on sustainable living — is just another unavoidable cut.
But when a university has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050, prioritizes erecting LEED-certified buildings and boasts being open to green initiatives, it seems counterproductive and hypocritical to cut one of the few programs that teaches students how to live sustainably and reduce their personal carbon footprint.
In some ways, the program was doomed from the start. It fell under both the agriculture and natural resources school and the Resident Life Department, and neither had the ultimate responsibility to fund, promote or support the program. EcoHouse officials said the majority of their advertising was online-only. They sent out e-mails and ran a website, but did not have the time or resources to go speak to students in classrooms, at environmental student group meetings or at Resident Life housing meetings. This means EcoHouse was missing crucial elements necessary for success: effective marketing, a constant source of funding and institutional support. It wasn’t just low enrollment that caused the program to retreat into hibernation.
That doesn’t excuse students from blame. The program has enrolled 63 students during the past three years — well below the 75 students per year most university living and learning programs host. And it’s hard to justify maintaining a program that doesn’t have high student interest.
Dean for Undergraduate Studies Donna Hamilton, who also serves as chairwoman of the committee that oversees living and learning programs, said resources are allocated based on perceived student interest. And when resources are slim, it’s tough to keep programs open when they just aren’t attracting enough students.
“Low-enrollment programs are difficult to support,” Hamilton said. “Otherwise, we have students coming to us with things that they want, and we can’t fund them.”
Typically, living and learning programs start slowly. Hamilton noted that College Park Scholars, which now boasts 14 programs with enrollment of about 75 students each, started off much smaller, with only four programs and far fewer students. EcoHouse wasn’t unique in its inability to spur rapid growth. It was just never given a fighting chance.
As far as student interest is concerned, the students who lived in the New Leonardtown community said they got a lot out of the experience: They tended a community garden and took EcoHouse classes on building sustainable communities. The take-away lessons of the EcoHouse are life-long. Students are taught to rethink the way they use water, re-evaluate the merits of buying locally produced or organic food, encouraged to experiment with different dietary options such as vegetarianism or veganism, inspired to ditch their cars for bikes and reminded how much energy can be saved by simply turning off the lights or lowering the thermostat.
EcoHouse won’t be reinstated without university support. Although the program may have to jump through hoops to come back, the university shouldn’t make it. Administrators should be offering solutions, options and resources to reinstate EcoHouse and should then ensure the program is getting the student exposure it needs.
If the university is serious about reducing its environmental impact, teaching students the basics of sustainable living is a good place to start.