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The Undergraduate Assembly and Faculty Senate will cohost a Climate and Sustainability Seminar on Apr. 7 to voice climate concerns to Penn's administration.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

The Undergraduate Assembly and Faculty Senate will cohost a Climate and Sustainability Seminar next month, allowing students and faculty to speak directly to administrators about climate-related concerns.

The event — which some student and faculty leaders say is an important step in a longer process of voicing climate concerns to administrators — will take place on April 7 from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. 

While Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, Chief Investment Officer Peter Ammon, Vice President of Business Services Marie Witt, and Facilities and Real Estate Services Vice President Anne Papageorge will attend to hear student concerns, questions must be submitted in advance of the event, which some student activists worry may render it ineffective.

"This is an important issue and one where the University has made great progress, as outlined in our Climate and Sustainability Action Plan," University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "Our hope is that this seminar will provide a broad audience access to the information and progress Penn is making."

The Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, released in October 2019, laid out a five-year plan for promoting sustainability on campus. The plan included reducing carbon emissions from campus buildings and purchasing sustainably produced food products and office equipment. At the time, Fossil Free Penn criticized the plan for not doing enough to address the University's contribution to climate change. The plan also did not mention the University's fossil fuel investments. 

College junior and UA Academic Initiatives Committee Director Tori Borlase said she and two other UA members, as well as students from Student Sustainability Association at Penn, began trying to get the administration to hold a town hall a year and a half ago. Borlase said SSAP — an umbrella group representing 13 environmental student groups on campus, including Fossil Free Penn — told her they wanted more access to the administrators with whom the UA regularly meets.

While an initial event was planned for last spring, Borlase said the COVID-19 pandemic caused administration and the UA to cancel the town hall. Since then, Borlase said getting a definite plan and getting administration to agree — or even respond to her emails — had been difficult.

Architecture professor and Faculty Senate Chair-Elect William Braham said that last month the Faculty Senate — a representative body for faculty at Penn — offered to co-host a climate-focused seminar with the UA after the UA struggled to get administration to agree to a town hall. Since the onset of the pandemic, it has held a Faculty Senate Seminar Series that invites administrators to attend and take questions from faculty. 

Borlase said that while she was grateful that Faculty Senate reached out to collaborate, she was disappointed that administrators were not responding to her emails or willing to work with her until the UA joined the Faculty Senate effort.

The format of the event allows students and faculty to submit questions ahead of time through a form, and no live questions will be taken, Braham said. 

Engineering junior and FFP Campaign Coordinator Emma Glasser expressed her concern with the format, saying that it prevents students and faculty from being able to hold administrators accountable because attendees must submit pre-written questions. She added that the event should be marketed to the Philadelphia community impacted by Penn's environmental footprint.

"Fossil Free Penn will never be part of a publicity stunt or greenwashing that this University puts forth, and that's exactly what this event is set up to be," Glasser said.

During the previous school year, FFP held weekly sit-ins outside Penn President Amy Gutmann's office demanding a public town hall focused on the University's investments in fossil fuels. The group has also protested at Board of Trustees meetings. These actions, Glasser said, have been met with silence from the administration.

Glasser said that the terms of this seminar are not in line with the public town hall FFP has called for since 2019.

"If we were to hold a town hall, that is what our ultimate goal would be — to bring the faces and stories of the Philadelphia community, of Indigenous activists, of the people who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis to these decision-makers," Glasser said.

College junior and SSAP Co-Chair Vyshnavi Kosigi is slightly more optimistic. She said that SSAP sees the seminar as a positive step, but added that it is still “the bare minimum.”

“It's cool that [administration] is acknowledging us and is agreeing to meet with students, but it's hard to know how much will actually change,” Kosigi said.

Kosigi said that SSAP members will use the seminar to push for fossil fuel divestment and a required climate course.

“We're glad that the UA, as a powerful student group, is starting to take more of a stance regarding climate action, and is using its position as a leader of the student body to do climate work, because historically it's always been SSAP kind of trudging along, pushing for divestment on our own,” Kosigi said.

Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication and Faculty Senate Chair Kathleen Hall Jamieson said that faculty will raise issues ranging from fossil fuel investments to renewable energy sources for both campus and faculty members’ homes at the seminar. She said that in addition to calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels, many faculty members want an option to have their retirement funds divested from any funds that profit from fossil fuels.

“Can we get to being carbon neutral?” Jamieson said. “And can we get there in time to play the role that we all need to play in order to minimize the likelihood that catastrophe exists just around the corner?”

Jamieson added that faculty will also address ways to decrease the use of plastics on campus and to discourage unnecessary travel. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee had planned to award the department that reduced its air travel the most a cash prize. Although it has largely been made moot in the past year by the pandemic, Jamieson said she wants to see the administration create incentives for faculty members to telecommute to conferences or use alternative forms of travel.

Glasser said that FFP wants to see Penn commit to divesting from fossil fuels and cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry — including Gutmann, who serves on the board of Vanguard, an asset management firm that owns funds invested in fossil fuels. She added that FFP would hope to see Penn reinvest in sustainable energy and commit to a vision of climate justice — but the group does not see the seminar as a fruitful way to pursue these.

"This event isn't set up for us to ask these hard questions and get the answers that we know and deserve — and actually, that the community and the world deserves," Glasser said.