Monday, August 9, 2010

UP’s Next Sustainability President – Anyone?

By Ramon Lorenzo Luis R. Guinto


This short essay proposes that “commitment to sustainability” be included as a quality of the next president of the University of the Philippines. Sustainability, which refers to “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” will empower the university in addressing local, national, and global challenges, as well as allow it to solve internal problems within the campuses and university system. Energy efficiency and environmental design should be the cornerstone of infrastructure projects, while UP must also ensure that every recyclable waste that it produces goes back to “Father Factory” and that every biodegradable material returns to “Mother Earth” through comprehensive waste management system. The next sustainability president must establish, among other additional “green” institutions, an Office of Campus Health and Sustainability that will map the sustainable future of UP and integrate and supervise all green activities in the campuses, as well as a transdisciplinary Institute of Climate Change Research and Policy that will increase UP’s involvement and leadership in climate change research and policy. Lastly, the most important strategy towards attaining sustainability is effective and overarching environmental education at all levels. This sustainability mindset will enable UP to become a model community for resiliency and sustainability – a clean and green, healthy and wealthy, national and global university.

August 5, 2010. Twenty days has passed since the memo announcing the search for the next UP president was released, and twenty days are remaining before the deadline for the submission of nominations. I am certain that every faculty, student, and staff who loves UP is now looking around for whom to nominate, or trying to catch some signals on who the probable nominees are. I am also sure that everyone keeps in mind the criteria posted in the UP website. The announcement says that we need a new UP president who possesses “integrity, stature in the academic profession, a national and international reputation as a scholar, and proven administrative capability.”

And the list of specific criteria goes on – “possesses political will and the political skills to defend and promote academic freedom and institutional autonomy; is committed to academic excellence; has a clear and inspiring vision of UP’s role in the 21st century; leads in ensuring the implementation of democratic governance in the university based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency and active participation of constituents; preserves the secular, public and non-sectarian character of UP; maintains and enriches intellectual diversity; does not promote a particular religion or school of thought; keeps UP above politics,” among others.

Interestingly, even the “ability to raise funds without compromising the traditional values and ideals of academia” is explicitly written in the criteria, indicating the sad and pitiful fiscal situation of UP.

I have no objections at the criteria listed above, though I want to propose another quality of the next UP president that we should be looking for – commitment to sustainability.

UP’s Challenges Inside and Out

Our university today is mired with almost the same problems that daunted us in the past years and decades, only now that they are much bigger and more challenging than before. The annual UP budget was never commensurate to the actual needs of the university, and so to augment the budget, the current administration increased the tuition by 300% and until today, more fees are gradually added one by one. Not only students are the ones experiencing the gravity of the fiscal problem – even faculty members and staff continue to fight for higher salaries and employee benefits until today. Our facilities are deteriorating, some say even the quality of our education is declining. In recent years, UP has engaged in joint ventures with private companies, which are “public-private partnerships” to some and “commercialization” and “privatization” for others. Perhaps the greatest question of all is the perceived receding national character of UP, despite it being officially named “national university” through the passing of the new UP Charter in 2008. This is the current internal state of UP.

On the other hand, every selection period, we look for a president who will make UP a global research university – an academic institution that forges linkages with others abroad and produces research outputs that are relevant to global concerns. However, despite this constant criterion, UP, especially when compared to universities here and abroad, still has limited involvement in global matters. Of course, we cannot discount the presence of some of our faculty and even students who actively participate in foreign think tanks and international organizations, or conduct globally-relevant researches on a personal or departmental scale. In addition, it is unfair not to recognize the presence of a few international programs and small partnerships with foreign universities. However, I feel that these international involvements are still immature and oftentimes unknown to the global community of universities. I was saddened that my colleagues and friends abroad are more familiar with our neighboring universities along Taft or Katipunan rather than UP.

I am not against making UP global. In this day and age, universities play a key role in the creation of knowledge and solutions to the world’s many challenges, and I am confident UP is capable of achieving that. However, it seems that the strategies currently employed in UP are not completely effective in attaining this goal. What we need is a new paradigm that will make us relevant and effective in terms of both breadth (national and global reach) and depth (addressing relevant and urgent issues).

Thus, I propose that the UP of the 21st century adopt a sustainability mindset, not just because it is the language used by most globally relevant universities abroad, but also because it will empower the university in addressing local, national, and global challenges, as well as allow us to solve internal problems within our campuses and university system.

Start Local to Become Global

The operational definition of the word “sustainability” has so many variations, depending on which text it was mentioned or the field of knowledge that used it (thus the emergence of terms like “environmental sustainability,” “human sustainability,” “global sustainability,” and “sustainable agriculture,” to name a few). The most popular phrase that easily comes to mind though is “sustainable development,” which the report of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development describes as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Other texts emphasize that sustainability encompass the maintenance and enhancement, not just of environmental, but also social and economic resources.

Given the aforementioned definition, I look not just for a green president who will lead in beautifying our gardens and increasing the number of trash bins inside the campus. What we need is a president who will espouse sustainability in his or her management of the university, from the projects it delivers to the garbage that it creates.

To be a sustainability president requires looking first at one’s own backyard. Certainly all past presidents of UP gave huge attention to internal matters, especially with regards to academic programs, policies on tuition, student conduct, and faculty tenure, and improvements in infrastructure. This time, I recommend the new UP president to broaden his or her approach to addressing internal matters by including environmental sustainability in the campus management plan. Instead of just asking from where we can get the funds needed to pay for our electricity bills, we should also be assessing our use of electricity – if we use it efficiently, if our lamps provide the lighting that our eyes actually need, if we have a university-wide policy regarding the de-plugging of appliances and machines after office hours to combat vampire loads, if new buildings to be constructed are designed in such a way that we utilize less electricity for lighting and ventilation. Energy efficiency and environmental design should be the cornerstone of infrastructure projects in UP.

Furthermore, instead of just ensuring we produce quality research outputs and excellent graduates, we should also be evaluating the resources we use every day – paper, plastic, food, electricity, etc. – and the way we manage the wastes these activities leave behind. First, reduction must be the policy focus of campus sustainability – in UP Manila, we students were able to push Chancellor Arcadio to sign a memo banning polystyrene containers. In addition, it is not enough that we have trash bins all over the campus – we must ensure that segregation happens in the littlest of units – classrooms, offices, laboratories, cafeterias, libraries, and corridors. This requires increasing the number of bins in each spot, allowing a more detailed and specific categorization of wastes – paper, plastic (PET bottle), aluminum can, compostable, e-waste, and others.

Equally important as addressing the source of waste is to ensure that these wastes are brought to a properly managed storage place and are processed in an environmentally sound manner. One key solution is the construction of Materials Recovery Facility or MRF – which is actually required of every local government unit by the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. The MRF will serve as the temporary repository of all recyclable wastes segregated at and collected from the trash bins. UP can partner with environmentally compliant recycling companies to buy the recyclables and claim them from the MRF. The UP administration must hold consultations with all stakeholders regarding the use of earnings from the MRF. What is important is that we would gain extra financial resources to pay for operational expenses, fund projects within and outside UP, or even provide scholarships to deserving and perhaps “eco-minded” students.

On the other hand, for biodegradables such as leftover foods and plant trimmings, community compost pits that nourish the soil and divert biodegradables from landfills must be built. Through composting, we will enrich our gardens, whether planted with ornamentals or vegetables, in a safe and natural manner.

Since at the meantime, UP Manila does not have an MRF, a similar concept called the UP Manila-Ayala Recyclables Fair was started in 2008 by my organization, UP One Earth, in partnership with Ayala Foundation. Held once a month, the fair serves as a temporary venue for UP Manila constituents to dispose their recyclables, giving them earnings as well as an opportunity to reduce the burden of waste in the community. Last February 2010, UP Diliman’s Isko Cleans UP movement also started their own version of the fair.

UP must create a sustainable, long-term, institution-wide system that will replace these student-led yet temporary “band-aid” initiatives. UP must ensure that every recyclable waste that it produces goes back to “Father Factory” and that every biodegradable material returns to “Mother Earth,” as what the late environmentalist and fellow UP alumna Odette Alcantara used to teach us.

In order to attract the world to UP, we must fix our home first – and a commitment to sustainability will make this happen.

The Need for Green Institutions

To hasten and simplify the process of sustainable transformation in UP, the next sustainability president must create an Office of Campus Health and Sustainability – with both a central office in Diliman that will map the sustainable future of UP, and campus-based offices that will integrate and supervise all green activities within each unit. Aside from energy efficiency, environmental design of buildings, and waste management, the office will also coordinate the activities of student and faculty environmental organizations; set guidelines in holding “green” events, meetings, lectures, and conferences inside UP; and conduct regular monitoring of compliance with environmental rules and regulations among colleges, departments, institutes, classrooms, laboratories, offices, and even tambayans of student organizations. UP One Earth just recently designed a scorecard called “Green Card” containing various environmental sustainability criteria for UP Manila units to follow and implement.

An office of sustainability will also unify all admirable efforts from our students, faculty, and staff already existing today. Sadly, most of these efforts are fragmented and disparate, and sometimes unsupported and unrecognized by the administration. We need leaders in UP who will not only be aware of these efforts, but more importantly willing to provide assistance and even augment these efforts into genuine and lasting institutional reforms.

We need a sustainability president who will put in her academic agenda the following: increasing the involvement and leadership of UP in research and policy on environmental concerns, particularly climate change, probably by establishing a transdisciplinary Institute of Climate Change Research and Policy; encouraging research and community extension projects aiming to preserve our native Filipino flora and fauna; specifically for UP Manila, founding a Center for Environmental Change and Human Health that will investigate the impact of climate change and other environmental phenomena on the health of Filipinos; and for campuses that specialize in agriculture like UP Los Banos and Mindanao, building model small organic farms that will exemplify the future of sustainable agriculture – one that does not practice monocropping and use chemicals for pesticides and fertilizers, but rather encourage crop rotation and use of indigenous farming practices.

I am fully aware that we have members of the faculty who already conducted researches on the aforementioned topics (Some of them are even members of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.), but I suggest that creating a center that will allow collaborative research among different fields of knowledge will result in more advanced, in-depth, holistic, and meaningful research outputs, thus creating a larger impact on both national and global levels.

Lastly, the most important strategy towards attaining sustainability is effective and overarching environmental education at all levels. In order for the culture of sustainability to spread like wildfire within the system, this concept must be embedded in the general education curriculum. In the global environmental course I recently attended at the East-West Center in Hawaii, we had a “Futures” class where we discussed how we can build a sustainable and resilient future from an interdisciplinary perspective. Certainly we can create our own version of this course. Moreover, rather than just an environmental science subject, a “Sustainability” class that will encompass all aspects of sustainability – environmental, social, economic, and even cultural – should be required for all UP undergraduate students as part of the Revitalized General Education Program. Moreover, a Master’s or even Bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Development (again instead of just environmental science, which is more of a natural science rather than an interdisciplinary subject) must be designed to cater to students who opt to specialize in this new and timely field of expertise.

A Sustainable Future for UP

In sum, I think the best way to chart the future of UP is to make sustainability the cornerstone of policy and management inside the university. The future is neither bleak nor nebulous at all – there are already concrete examples of universities that started this pursuit of sustainability, from Ateneo and Miriam in Katipunan to University of Hawaii (under the Sustainable UH movement) and even Harvard University (which founded its own Office for Sustainability in 2008). (There is even a global alliance called “University Leaders for a Sustainable Future”; The next sustainability president would not have to worry about initiating this revolution, because he or she is assured of full support from all sustainability advocates in the university, myself and my organization included.

This sustainability movement will also enable UP to become the model that it always wished to be – a model community for resiliency and sustainability, not just in terms of academic excellence or social relevance, but also in environmental management. The challenges facing our environment are so important and urgent today more than ever, and the Philippines is so environmentally rich that for the national university to ignore this vital area is to commit a great disservice to the Filipino people.

I am not saying that the next UP administration should focus solely on environmental issues within and outside UP – we have so many other issues to address, from the UP budget to preservation of academic freedom. What I am proposing is that the next president adopts a sustainability frame of mind – it will only help solve our waste problem and climate change, but it will also allow the birth of novel approaches to addressing other issues as well.

After having a “centennial president,” it is time to have a “sustainability president” – and I think to become one is an enduring legacy for UP and for the Philippines at large. Surely, the nominees who will be reading this will now consider including sustainability as part of their vision paper. But what I wish for is more than that – that the next UP president, and the entire University of the Philippines, concretize this increasingly important and highly achievable concept, as sustainability has the potential to bring UP to the next level – a clean and green, healthy and wealthy, national and global university.

(Currently a sixth year medical student under the INTARMED program, Ramon Lorenzo Luis R. Guinto is last year’s chairperson of the University Student Council of the University of the Philippines Manila. He is also the co-founder of UP One Earth, UP Manila’s student environmental organization, and recently a US Department of State scholar at the Study of the United States Institute for Student Leaders on Global Environmental Issues held last May 23-June 27, 2010 at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and Washington D.C.)

(Editor's Note: This essay was reposted from the Facebook page of Mr. Guinto with his permission. Photo source:

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