The Office of Environmental Stewardship is looking to expand its interaction with students following the departure of the former head this summer. For environmental student leaders, who have been disappointed in the office’s level of engagement on campus, it’s welcome news.
The four-person office is tucked away on the fourth floor of a nondescript building on West 115th Street between Riverside Drive and Broadway. That’s indicative of a larger issue, students say—its low profile on campus has led to student environmental groups taking most of the initiative when it comes to eco-friendliness.
“If you talk to most people who are outside of the environmental group circuit, no one knows what the Office of Environmental Stewardship is. No one’s ever heard of it,” Louis Smith, CC ’13 and one of last year’s coordinators of EcoReps, said. “That’s a really big problem.”
Smith collaborated with the office on the EcoReps bike-share pilot program last year, but the student group had trouble getting the OES to follow up with its portion of the work. OES was responsible for completing risk management waivers, and Smith claimed that there was a delay in getting those forms completed. “It wasn’t clear that working with students was a large priority, or that it was really in the job description of the person heading up the office,” he said.
Although Cathy Resler and Helen Bielak, two managers in the office, declined to answer questions about the office’s involvement with the bike-share program, they recognized that they need to strengthen their relationship with students.
“We’ve been hearing from students that they feel like they’d like to see our presence more, and I think that’s something that is a big priority and we’re trying to work on that,” Resler said.
Over the summer, the office experienced a quiet turnover in leadership that is leading administrators to reconsider the structure of the office, both internally and within the greater hierarchy of the University.
Nilda Mesa served as assistant vice president for environmental stewardship from 2006 until July, when she left her job to become associate dean of administrative affairs at Columbia’s Journalism School. She said in an email her favorite part of the job was interacting with students. “I really miss working with students. It was great to advise, coach and advocate for student ideas and projects,” she said.
Vice President of Campus Services Scott Wright has taken over Mesa’s role on an interim basis, and as the University searches for a new permanent head, Wright said the biggest question is what direction the office will head in next.
“I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time talking to students and different people just to get a sense of what everybody is looking for going forward,” he said.
Mesa reported to Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin. The next assistant vice president might continue to report to Kasdin, but Wright said it might be “equally effective” to report to “campus services if we want a student focus, or over in facilities if we want a really technical or construction focus.”
“There are just obvious areas that could work, and I think in the end you just pick one and go,” he said.
The office’s mandate is to increase awareness of what the University is doing in terms of sustainability and of the resources available to students but, according to staff members, that goal is a difficult one.
“A lot of people get us confused with Environmental Health and Safety or think that we function as part of facilities, but that’s not how we work,” Resler said. “Our role is more of an educator, adviser, and encourager.”
She said she was aware that the office could do better to market itself to students. “We’re trying to figure out a way to better brand ourselves,” she said. One of the office’s new efforts at publicity includes an email response program so that student questions and concerns can be heard.
Student leader said they’d like to see less talk and more action.
“It hasn’t had the strongest student engagement. The student programming side has been lacking,” said Zak Accuardi, SEAS ’12, who led Green Umbrella and various other environmental projects as a student.
“Although they were always supportive verbally with the project,” Smith said of the bike-share, “it was hard to get their help outside verbal support, like monetary support and support within other realms of the administration.”
Aida Conroy, CC ’13 and another former co-coordinator of EcoReps, has worked closely with the office while organizing the bike-share program and bringing a composter to campus. She said she appreciated the input that OES staff members provided, but had similar issues with the lack of responsiveness.
“What I would like to see in an improved office would be them working closely with students, but also them thinking critically and trying to reach out to us with projects,” she said.
Resler said she sees her role as a support system for students rather than an idea-generating force. But, she stressed, that means the door’s always open.
“I am more than happy to talk to any group at any time before midnight about the resources available,” Resler said. “If people want to meet with us we are here and happy to help.”