As with many different issues in modern politics, there seems to be an ever-growing divide in opinions regarding climate change between the highest levels of governing bodies and their constituents. This is evident on a federal level, with President Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, but the pattern also extends to the institution of Washington and Lee University.
In 2015, after years of joint planning between students and staff, a proposal for a large solar panel array near Penial Farm was brought before the Board of Trustees. This array, with a capacity more than double the total current capacity, would have completely powered the new Third Year Village. According to Tessa Horan (’18), a student who was deeply involved in the project, the Student Environmental Action League (SEAL) had gathered upwards of 500 student signatures in support of the project. Kim Hodge, the Director of Sustainability Initiatives, said that the faculty was also overwhelmingly in support of the proposal, as were higher-level administrators. Even the president was supportive.
Despite the positive consensus at every level of Washington and Lee, the Board rejected the proposal all three times it was brought before them.
The Board’s prevention of the construction of the array was upsetting enough to the sustainability community that it is still often discussed, three years later. The question most often asked, but most difficult to answer, is why the proposal was not approved.
The Board cited multiple reasons, one of the most prominent being that the 25-year return on investment was too long. Additionally, President Ruscio’s son worked at Secure Solar, the company with which Washington and Lee would work, a fact that the Board viewed as a potential conflict of interest. Another reason, which SEAL attempted to combat with its petition, was that sustainability was not in the strategic plan at the time, which they viewed as an indication of a lack of support from the Washington and Lee community. Finally, and perhaps most tenuously, they said that the aesthetics of the array could be unappealing to a future resident of a nearby property, which had been unoccupied for three years.
When it comes to the real reasons behind the Board’s rejection, rumors abound, in part because the officially offered reasons do not hold up. While it is true that the project had a long return on investment, the board holds no such investment expectations for other infrastructure projects, such as bridges. Lawyers had thoroughly examined the case before its proposal to the board, checking for conflicts of interest, and Kim Hodge says that the president, though supportive, had distanced himself from the project to prevent the conflict. The community at all levels had clearly voiced support for the project and a survey of the students conducted by Tessa Horan showed that few had an aesthetic preference for a view with no solar array from the property in question. There are rumors of climate denial or oil interests in the board contributing to the decision, but ultimately, the true reasons may never be known.
What is clear about Washington and Lee from the Penial Farm solar project is that, for whatever reasons, there is a gap between the Board and the rest of Washington and Lee when it comes to sustainability. However, the more surprising and significant fact is that the separation has not stopped the success of sustainability initiatives. The Washington and Lee Climate Action Plan, released in 2010, set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The intermediate goal of a 20% reduction in greenhouse emission levels by 2020 has already been met due to other small-scale sustainability initiatives, putting the University ahead of schedule, despite the addition of the Third Year Village. The news is not all good: as Ginny Johnson (’20), an intern of the Office of Sustainability, points out, the University has done all of the easy stuff, leaving only big changes. However, the Office of Sustainability has managed to, in many ways, circumvent the board, achieving their goals without support from the highest level. More large-scale solar plans are in the works, and Kim Hodge remains optimistic that the University will still be able to reach its carbon neutrality goal, especially as more people with pro-sustainability views make their way onto the Board.
The story of sustainability at Washington and Lee is not so different from the national narrative. While President Trump clearly does not prioritize sustainability or consider climate change to be a serious threat, his actions have been unable to halt the progress happening on state and commercial levels. For example, more than 27,000 leaders of local governments and businesses have committed to the “We Are Still In” movement, signaling their continued support of the Paris Climate Goal. These leaders represent 158.8 million people and 6.2 trillion dollars’ worth of GDP. What is clear in all areas is that high levels of governance, though influential, cannot fully stop individual or even institutional movements — they can at best slow them down. When it comes to sustainability at Washington and Lee—and frankly, to all types of progressive change—the battle is still far from over, but student action will continue to make a difference. When it comes to trying to realize change, anthropologist Margret Mead offers perhaps the most fitting advice: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Special thanks to Kim Hodge, Ginny Johnson, and Tessa Horan for helping me complete this article.
Farha, Gary. “Innovative Aggregation Expands Access to Large-Scale
Renewables.”Renewable Energy World, Renewable Energy World, 29 Mar. 2017, www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2017/03/innovative-aggregation-expands-access-to-large-scale-renewables.html.
Washington and Lee University. www.wlu.edu/Documents/university-facilities/2010-climate-action-plan.pdf.
“We Are Still In.” We Are Still In, www.wearestillin.com/.