Students protest LeBlanc’s decision to remove sustainability pillar from strategic plan

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Maansi Srivastava | Photographer

Student leaders said University President Thomas LeBlanc's decision to not have a sustainability pillar means he is not focusing on the environment.

A student organization focused on reducing single-use plastic usage is protesting University President Thomas LeBlanc’s decision not to include sustainability as a key pillar in the University’s next strategic plan.

Take Back the Tap – an organization that encourages students to forgo single-use plastics for water-filling stations – asked students to scan a QR code linked to a sample letter and to comment on the strategic plan website at an event in Gelman Library Tuesday. Student sustainability leaders said LeBlanc’s choice to exclude sustainability from the strategic planning process signals his unwillingness to make GW a greener campus.

University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said Office of Student Involvement staff met with students Tuesday to discuss the “most effective” method for students who wish to express concerns about LeBlanc’s decision. She said officials agree that sustainability is “important” to the University’s culture.

She added that the culture leadership team – a group of faculty and administrators working to improve staff morale and interactions – considered many topics when deciding what values to include in OUR GW, the University’s strategic cultural initiative.

“Their focus was on capturing broad values based on feedback from our faculty and staff community,” Nosal said in an email. “However, that does not mean there are not other important priorities for the University, including sustainability.”

LeBlanc kicked off the new strategic planning process in September and has since convened four faculty-led committees to garner student, faculty and staff feedback and develop recommendations for what the next strategic plan should include.

Former University President Steven Knapp – who stepped down as president in 2017 – created a sustainability task force in 2007, his first year, which led to the establishment of the Office of Sustainability in 2009. He rolled out an “ecosystem plan” in 2012 to create sustainability goals, like reducing light pollution in construction projects, increasing purchases from local food producers and reducing GW’s total waste output.

Take Back the Tap co-president and former Hatchet opinions writer Jennifer Cuyuch said the group initially planned to repeatedly call LeBlanc’s office in protest. Cuyuch said she reached out to leaders from organizations, like Surfrider GW and the sustainability living and learning community on the Mount Vernon Campus, to raise awareness about LeBlanc’s decision and promote the protest event on social media.

But Take Back the Tap switched to submitting online feedback after receiving an email from Anne Graham, the assistant director of student involvement, saying that inundating the office with phone calls would not be an “effective” form of protest.

“I very much admire your passion and initiative with this, and appreciate the importance of sustainability, but am concerned that deploying the ‘annoyance protest’ strategies is not the most effective way to communicate your message to the president and may undermine your efforts,” Graham said in the email.

“GW isn’t really as sustainable like other schools – I think this was just another thing that reinforced that,” Cuyuch said.

Take Back the Tap co-president Lucy Hummer said the group initially planned a protest to advocate for reducing GW’s dependency on single-use plastic bottles and encouraging students to use water-filling stations on campus. But she said student sustainability leaders reoriented the protest after discovering LeBlanc’s intention to exclude sustainability from the next strategic plan.

“When we learned that this plan had happened, we kind of re-geared and completely changed what we’re going to be calling about because we thought that this was more pressing, and also more important,” Hummer said.

Hummer said LeBlanc’s lack of focus on sustainability would be less problematic if assessing GW’s environmental impact was never a University pillar to begin with. But she said the intentional removal of sustainability efforts from the strategic planning process is “troubling” and indicates that officials do not prioritize adopting greener practices.

“This is LeBlanc’s first time creating one of these strategic plans, so it was really his opportunity to show that he was going to prioritize sustainability on campus, and he didn’t,” Hummer said.

Student Association Vice President for Sustainability Jan Nowak said he first discovered that sustainability was not one of the values in the next strategic plan when officials first announced the seven values involved with the culture initiative.

Nowak said he drafted a sample letter challenging the rule as soon as he learned of LeBlanc’s decision and reached out to organizations like Take Back the Tap and Sunrise GW with copies of the letter.

“Sustainability is important to the community not only in the lens of climate change, but it’s our responsibility as an institution to lead the D.C. community as part of a global community,” Nowak said.

Ed Prestera contributed reporting.

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