Ten years ago, former President Roger Taylor signed a statement endorsing the Talloires Declaration, which outlines 10 points for colleges and universities to look at in addressing sustainability on their campuses.
According to Director of Campus Sustainability Debbie Steinberg, the Declaration grew out of a rush of environmental focus among institutions of higher education around the year 2000.
“I think that those students, and the faculty and the staff, felt like this was a good thing to show that Knox was concerned with sustainability issues and they thought that this Declaration was a good way to go,” Steinberg said.
The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) keeps the records for the Declaration. Their website explains that the Declaration was written in 1990 and was the “first official statement” on sustainability made by college administrations.
Since then, the ULSF has functioned to promote the Declaration and to help signers implement the 10 points that the document includes.
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman was present when Taylor signed the Declaration on May 30, 2008. Both Schwartzman and Steinberg noted that the late 2000s were an era with a lot of momentum for sustainability on campus.
“It was kinda right around the same time that sustainability was starting to become something that students, faculty, staff kinda wanted to have be more present on campus,” Steinberg said. “2008-ish is when the Sustainability Task force was formed.”
According to the announcement put out on June 9, 2008 by the college about the Declaration, 2008 was also when Student Senate first asked to implement the Green Fee.
Much of the push for the Declaration was led by students. Schwartzman first became aware of it when he gave a keynote address at Western Illinois University’s Earth Day celebrations. The president of Western Illinois signed the Declaration that same day. However, Schwartzman said that he believed students learned of the document independently.
“I don’t think I put it in their ear. I certainly talked about it but I think they also independently found out about it too. They were looking for … a document that other colleges are signing, are agreeing too, that we can also sign and agree to,” Schwartzman said.
Taylor originally had some doubts about the wording of the document and whether Knox could really live up to the standards the Declaration expected. So, according to Schwartzman, some students worked to revise the 10 points into something more doable for Knox. Taylor then signed onto the Declaration.
Since then, Knox has developed some of its own internal language for sustainability. Part of the college’s strategic plan includes promoting sustainability on campus. The college has also created the Office of Sustainability and the Sustainability Council to address related issues on campus.
“Once they signed it, I know that there was a lot of movement for getting sustainability to be more institutionalized. I don’t know if that’s a direct result of signing it, or because having signed it there’s more of like a ‘look, we’ve admitted we care about sustainability, we need to do more things,’” Steinberg said.
Schwartzman pointed out that as far as he knew, while Knox has made these changes, Talloires is the only environmental document that the college has signed.
“I think that Talloires still stands out as that which we did and this is 10 years so let’s do a proper assessment and be as critical as we need to be. If we didn’t achieve, if we’re failing in certain areas, let it be known and let’s see what we can do to maybe fix it. To ignore it, I think, leaves us ignorant and unprincipled,” he said.
The changes the college has made have not been entirely effective either, Schwartzman said. He has found the Council this year to be rather ineffective and he worries that students do not know that it is a resource for getting things done on campus. Steinberg said that the Council checked in with progress on Talloires last year but they do not refer to it repeatedly.
“This is not a criticism of [Steinberg] per se, or her predecessors, but rather it’s just that we have not worked out a proper mechanism for effectively moving the college forward,” Schwartzman said. “I think it needs to be bottom-up, or I think it needs to have a very strong bottom-up component.”
No language on sustainability was included in the new curriculum that the faculty passed this spring, although Schwartzman said he believes students would have liked to see it in there. Nor does he think that many faculty are familiar with the sustainability parts of the strategic plan.
For Schwartzman, symbolically re-signing the Declaration could be a good motivator to start looking at it as an important document for Knox’s values and a chance for students to learn about the role they can play in the process.
“Documents like Talloires are as significant as you make them and I think if the president were to re-commit to the values expressed, basically re-sign it. I think that would be an opportunity to educate,” Schwartzman said.