Philosophy student Boris Pulskens – at 26 probably one of the oldest students on the Council – carefully phrases his points. He weighs and nuances his statements and delivers them sotto voce. Louise van Koppen (22, Erasmus University College) seems almost his exact opposite. Her contributions to the Council sessions show a strong emotional involvement and are delivered in an energetic, quick-fire tone. Nevertheless, over the past year, this ‘odd couple’ proved an effective team within the Council, achieving quite a few concrete results in what can occasionally be a rather elusive subject: sustainability.
Why is sustainability so important to you?
Louise: “It’s been important for as long as I can remember. My mother always said that as a kid, if I wanted to pick a leaf, I asked the tree for permission first. I feel very strongly about our destruction of this planet. And with its economic profile, I believe Erasmus University is the best place to do something about this. Because the root of the problem lies in today’s society and how we’ve structured it. It isn’t sustainable. I believe we need to revise our current economic models, taking account of the needs of our planet.”
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Boris: “In my case, it’s due to my Philosophy studies. From the very beginning, I’ve been particularly inspired my professor Henk Oosterling. He argues for sustainably improving neighbourhoods via an integrated approach – by also taking the surrounding area and social relationships on board, for example. My Master’s thesis deals with why we don’t act in an ecologically responsible manner, even though we know we’re destroying our planet in the process.
“In addition, I thought sustainability was a great theme to be taken up by the University Council. The current university strategy already included some big ambitions in this area, but most of them remained good intentions. There were a few concrete projects – an energy-saving measure here; a couple of solar panels there. But we definitely won’t be meeting the target, agreed upon with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), of 30 percent energy savings.”
How did you put sustainability on the Council’s agenda?
Louise: “Initially, it seemed logical to start with the organisation itself. We argued for increasing biodiversity on campus, reducing our energy consumption and offering more vegetarian options. We also wrote a proposal for a new university-wide sustainability office.
“Six months ago, we basically made a dramatic change of course. Speaking with UN youth delegate for sustainability Emma Clemens, I became aware of how important it actually is to incorporate sustainability in the education programme itself. If you manage to foster a more sustainable mind-set in students – i.e. the leaders of tomorrow – you can eventually change not just the university, but a huge number of companies and government bodies.
Boris: “From then on, we started putting a stronger focus on strategic decisions. In the meanwhile, we did manage to work on three concrete measures, together with the members of an advisory panel: waste separation on campus, Tinbergen’s conversion into a ‘smart building’ and making the new sports centre carbon-neutral. These measures each represent an investment of some 1 million euro. In the longer term, the university will also be replacing more and more existing lighting with energy-saving LEDs.”
About the sustainability conference
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Louise: “That’s when we started lobbying for more sustainability in education and research. This is a very slow transition process, since there’s such a thing as academic freedom for teachers. This change can’t be imposed on people ‘top-down’ – the only thing you can do is try to inspire lecturers and researchers.
“That’s why in May, the University Council organised a sustainability conference. It’s a pity that most of the people who’d benefit most from this event didn’t show up. Fortunately, the Executive Board did attend. And we’re delighted to say they took it very seriously. The results of the conference will be included as input in the consultations about the new strategic plans – with sustainability serving as one of the seven pillars.”
What are you most proud of?
Boris: A real change in the mind-set of a great many people on campus. And, not least, within the Executive Board. They really rallied to the cause.
What do you base this claim on?
Boris: The discussions we’ve had with the Executive Board. We had a very difficult start: initially they didn’t want to commit to anything – they had no interest in giving sustainability its own place in the new strategy. It’s a completely different story now.
Louise: And we shouldn’t forget Eddy Hus (interim third member of the Executive Board, ES)! He basically said: We’re going to do this.
Boris: Yes, Hus was the first member to come round to the idea.
Stylish suit, expensive watch, slick management type. ‘Sustainability’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘Eddy Hus’…
Louise (smiling): “No, he’s always joking about eating meat.”
‘ I remember thinking: well, in that case I’ll definitely take you up on your offer.’
Boris: At the beginning of this year Eddy said to me: If you want to get something done in this university, I’m the guy you should talk to. In that sense he’s not one for false modesty. But I remember thinking: well, in that case I’ll definitely take you up on your offer.”
Louise: “Another thing I liked is that he really took us seriously. That’s great, because that’s what ultimately made him change his mind – and he managed to get the rest of the Executive Board along too.”
Boris: “Another thing that points to a real mentality change is how the Executive Board responds to our proposals. Regarding the ABP pension fund, for example. We asked them to look into ABP’s investments in non-sustainable industries like palm oil. And the Board will be doing this together with the VSNU and ABP – in fact, they’ve extended their scope to include all the university’s contacts with non-sustainable businesses, and they will create guidelines for research and education parties.”
Which advice would you like to give the new University Council members who will be taking office after the summer?
Boris: “I’d like to advise the new council members to focus more on the faculties, there is still a lot to be gained there in respect to sustainability. And I also hope the university will be working closer together with sustainability institute DRIFT, a partnership I’ve also argued for in a letter to the University Council. DRIFT is already a part of Erasmus University, and a leading institute in the field of sustainability transitions. They’ve already built up expertise when it comes to incorporating sustainability in research. I’ve discussed the subject with the new rector, Rutger Engels, who showed – measured – enthusiasm, because of course, DRIFT has to deal with capacity limitations.”
Louise: “And I’d like to advise the Council members to keep a sharp eye on the plans for the new strategy. And it would be great if the sustainability conference became an annual event. And I hope that the university will still be setting up a central sustainability office, because we need as many people who can push this theme within the university organisation as possible.”
Is that your biggest disappointment: that this office wasn’t set up?
Louise: “On the one hand: yes. But on the other hand I’m aware that simply freeing up funds and FTEs for this kind of thing isn’t enough. You need a clear task description – and that’s something that you need to first draw up, as a academic community. That’s why I agree with Eddy Hus that you should first put all your energy into formulating a new, sustainable strategy.”