Simple shift or short shrift?

Sustainability centers close at Chico State, Butte College

Kelly Munson, Associated Students and Student Life adviser at Butte College, stands under a solar array on campus.

Kelly Munson, Associated Students and Student Life adviser at Butte College, stands under a solar array on campus.

Photo by Josh Cozine

Over a decade ago, Chico State and Butte College made individual commitments to be better stewards of the environment—both physically, through moving their campuses toward climate neutrality, and educationally. To that end, in 2007, Chico State formed the Institute for Sustainable Development and Butte College’s Associated Students created the Sustainability Resource Center.

This year marks the end of an era for both entities, as both lost directors and have been diminished, though some of their programming will remain.

Kelly Munson has been part of the Sustainability Resource Center (SRC) at Butte College since its inception. There, she helped plan and coordinate events like Sustainability Days—a week-long series of eco-themed conferences, open to the public—and the campus Earth Day festivals.

Munson works as the college’s Associated Students and Student Life adviser. She also serves as a point person for student-led sustainability projects as well as the campus’ Sustainability Steering Committee. The SRC was a place where she interacted with students and where they collaborated amongst themselves.

Until it closed at the end of spring, that is.

“The funds [for the SRC] came fully from A.S. funds that have been dropping with lower enrollment,” Munson said, “and when the director [Yvette Zunigh] left, instead of replacing her right away, we decided to have a conversation about if we could use the funds better.” As a way to save money for the program, Zunigh took a job in another department in January, Munson said.

From that discussion, she continued, “we realized we weren’t in a position to hire another supervisor.”

Chico State found itself in the same situation at the same time. The university’s Institute for Sustainable Development lost its director, Jim Pushnik, at the end of spring—to retirement—and the university decided not to replace him, at least immediately.

Mark Stemen, a professor of geography and planning, lamented the loss.

“Now, with Jim leaving, and it being shifted around, that real kind of campus sustainability focus … is gone,” he said. “I don’t know that we can’t continue doing projects through the Institute for Sustainable Development, but what we’ve really lost is a champion, a sustainability champion, someone who is known in the field, who has worked in the field, and who can help everyone who hasn’t.”

Separate financial issues influenced each campus’ decision. Butte College’s concern is lower enrollment, which has translated into lower student fees paid to A.S.; Chico State’s concern is the university budget, as opposed to A.S. funding, since the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) receives funding through Academic Affairs.

Butte College’s student population has fallen from 12,082 to 11,035 since fall of 2016, according to Clinton Slaughter, dean of Student Services.

He attributed the decrease to the economy and competition. In a recovery, with minimum wage rising and more jobs available, more prospective community college students find employment. The competitive public and private colleges will still receive enough applicants, he continued, but Butte usually sees lower enrollment.

“We’re the flexible piece in the higher ed system here in California,” he said.

While A.S. funds have fallen, affecting more than just the SRC, officials say the college still remains dedicated to sustainability in other efforts, such as in the construction of its new welding building. Allen Renville, vice president for Student Services, noted the $2.5 million allocation for solar panels for the building—“that’s a pretty big commitment.” Kim Jones, director of facilities planning and management, said a PG&E estimate indicated the building would exceed planned power expectations.

“Our hope is, instead of centering on one center, [sustainability] will spread out to all the departments around campus,” said Munson, who intends to use the remaining A.S. sustainability funds to get more students interested in sustainability through other means.

As a part of the conversation, Munson reached out to friend and colleague Nani Teves, with A.S. Sustainability at Chico State, a group similarly funded primarily by student fees, though one whose future appears strong.

“Students have a lot of bright ideas,” Teves said. Through A.S. Sustainability, they pitch potential projects to committees, composed mostly of students, who decide whether to offer funding. About 100 projects have been approved by A.S. Sustainability since 2006, Teves said. Munson hopes to replicate that success, and plans to start funding such student-led projects by next semester.

The building that once housed the SRC held its grand opening Sept. 12 as the Queer Resource Center.

At Chico State’s ISD, the shift began with the retirement of Pushnik, a biology professor who’d served as ISD director since 2010. The remaining staff was redirected over the summer to Facilities Management and Services or to the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative—developed in collaboration with the ISD—under the direction of the provost’s office. (This Way to Sustainability will continue under the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative.)

Fletcher Alexander, hired as campus sustainability coordinator in 2011, was reassigned to FMS, but recently took a job out of town. He said he had been offered the job before his reassignment to FMS, and that he will still work remotely—and return to Chico regularly—to continue work with ongoing projects.

Stemen is skeptical. “When they say ISD isn’t going away, well ISD isn’t the Regenerative Agriculture Institute. Ag is just one thing. ISD covered everything.”

According to University Communications, Chico State plans to start looking for a new sustainability coordinator soon for the facilities department, while the future of the ISD beyond some ongoing projects is unknown until discussion by the Academic Senate.