Research teams explore campus culture, external partnerships


When pursuing carbon neutrality, it’s often easy to focus on the technical, whether energy efficiency standards of new buildings, electricity procurement options, or how to power campus vehicles.

For two research teams supporting the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, these strategies, though crucial, represent one side of a coin.

“It’s not just how we get to carbon neutrality, that zero on a spreadsheet. That could happen, but how do we make sure that everybody understands the importance of it and takes that out into every corner of the state, country, and planet that we reach into?” said Joseph Trumpey, associate professor of art, Penny W Stamps School of Art and Design, and associate professor of natural resources and of Program in the Environment, School for Environment and Sustainability.

Over the past year, Trumpey has served as a co-faculty lead for an analysis team studying campus culture and communication as it pertains to carbon neutrality. It aims to not only encourage U-M faculty, staff and students to take actions toward broader sustainability, but to instill a renewed sense of responsibility and buy-in — that everyone has a crucial role to play in combating a global climate crisis.

With an emphasis on top-down leadership and bottom-up activism, the team looked to U-M’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts as a model for how the university might centrally position carbon neutrality efforts.

“We need to think about sustainability as a basic skill of global citizenship, and we want to teach it the way that we teach writing or race and ethnicity — across the curriculum,” said Samer Ali, co-faculty lead of the team and associate professor of Arabic language and literature at LSA.

“We have a moment in America where we’re thinking about systemic problems: environmental, racial and economic. It’s an opportunity to reconceptualize sustainability. It’s not simply about reducing carbon.”

Complementing the culture team’s work is another carbon commission research group focused on external collaboration. While the culture team emphasized how best to involve the U-M community, the collaboration team set out to explore how U-M can amplify its carbon neutrality impact through local, regional and global partnerships.

Undergraduate and graduate student researchers staffed both teams, conducting research of like-minded institutions, and convening and surveying stakeholders from all three U-M campuses and beyond.

“Carbon neutrality doesn’t have to mean vastly changing everything you do and creating burdensome impacts on communities and on students’ lives,” said Anya Shapiro, an external collaboration team member and dual degree graduate student at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and SEAS.

“Our work is really about finding a way to bridge the interests of the community — whether you’re talking about students, external partners or community members in Ann Arbor, Dearborn or Flint — with what the university wants to do, in the most inclusive way possible.”

Shapiro, who worked as a mediator on natural resource issues prior to beginning her graduate studies, joined the team with an interest in engaging stakeholders where they are and elevating diverse and underrepresented perspectives. She and fellow team members stress the necessity of not lumping disparate communities together with a single engagement strategy.

“The university community is not just where we physically are. Our stakeholders are global,” said Trish Koman, a co-faculty lead of the external collaboration team as well as research investigator at the School of Public Health and program manager at the College of Engineering.

“This has got to be bigger than Michigan. We play a key leadership role, but we’re not going to be able to do this alone. We’ve seen during this COVID-19 pandemic how everyone is rapidly making changes in their operations and trying to think as critically as possible, as quickly as possible. We need that sort of energy and solution-oriented action on climate.”

For Meg Czerwinski, a campus culture team member and Ph.D. candidate at the School of Nursing, part of the work begins with making sustainability messages and resources more visible across the university. During the past academic year, Czerwinski was active in conversations across U-M’s campuses, schools and units. She also drew on existing literature and research behind effective sustainability education.

One common thread she noticed was many wanted to contribute their energies and enthusiasm, but couldn’t always find fruitful ways to pursue impactful work.

“If we have clear messaging that everyone can rally behind, I do think that the community can come together, and it can become embedded in everything that we do,” Czerwinski said.

Ultimately, both teams aimed to tie carbon neutrality and sustainability work to U-M’s mission.

“Our teams didn’t have explicit carbon emissions in our mandate. But, we focused on the process — how do you get (carbon neutrality) done and how do you do it better?” said Andy Hoffman, co-faculty lead of the external collaboration team and the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School and SEAS.

“If this tightens our ties with the external community, if it improves educational quality for our students, if it breaks down the silos between schools, you’ve got something here that can actually make us a better university.”

“I feel like there’s this small window that we have to really be proactive before we’re just continuing to try to catch up as we’re forced to reckon with climate change and its consequences,” Czerwinski said. “Climate change is our greatest public health threat, and also our greatest opportunity.”

The campus culture and communications analysis team also includes Jude Boudon of the Stamps School, Ben Ingall and Madeline Peery of LSA, and Lisa Maillard and Chris Merchant of SEAS.

The external collaboration team also includes Gopichand Alla and Joseph Samulski of UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, Amelia Brinkerhoff of Ross, Zoie Chang and Erin O’Shaughnessy of LSA, Wenjie Liu of the Ford School, and Mara Page of the Rackham Graduate School.

The carbon commission expects to make its draft recommendations available for public comment during the fall and deliver its final report by the end of the calendar year.


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