Less than a month after a student group organized its first plastic-free week, its petition to ban single-use plastic water bottles has more than 800 signatures.
“We hope to see a strong initiative to ban all single-use plastics in the future, but for now, plastic water bottles is [a] good launching- off point,” Sustainable University of Hawai‘i member Rachael Roehl said in an email interview. “Essentially everyone has come in to contact with plastic water bottles at one time or another, and few really think about what happens after they throw it away.”
Sustainable UH, working with the Surfrider Foundation at UH Mānoa, launched its petition during its plastic-free week, which took place from Nov. 17-21. It aimed to raise awareness about the pollution caused by single-use plastics.
Banning single-use plastic water bottles
As of Dec. 13, the petition had 833 signatures but hopes to receive more than 1,000, according to Roehl.
“All it really takes are small lifestyle changes, like remembering to bring your reusable water bottle, that make a huge impact on the amount of plastic that is thrown away ending up in either landfills or our oceans,” she said. “The best part is, it works like a chain reaction. When one person starts changing their ways and sharing ideas with their friends, suddenly everyone is doing it.”
The petition on MoveOn.org states that the campus community is calling for the ban, as there is a growing need for environmental stewardship on the campus, island and around the country, as well as an increase in water refill stations. In addition, at least 65 campuses on the mainland have implemented similar bans.
The effect on eateries on campus
According to Roehl, the ban would affect venues that sell water bottles and would ideally eliminate sales all together, leaving room to implement more sustainable choices such as more water refill stations or selling reusable bottles.
Mānoa Dining Services, which oversees many of the retail dining locations on campus, supports sustainability efforts, according to Sodexo General Manager Donna Ojiri. However, the department also feels it needs to support the student’s choice to use single-use plastic bottles or a reusable container.
“Many students use reusable water containers and fill them in the water filling station at Campus Center across Starbucks,” she said in an email interview. “However, there are just as many students who do not bring their own reusable containers and purchase bottled water from our operations. We are here to support the choice of the students. As a registered dietitian, I promote drinking water as healthier compared to drinking some other higher-calorie beverages, so if a student wants to purchase bottled water, I support that choice.”
Next semester, Mānoa Dining Services (MDS) is considering implementing a reuseable beverage container that can be refilled with hot coffee and fountain beverages at specific MDS locations.
Moving towards a more sustainable place
In order to implement a ban on plastic water bottles on campus, a policy needs to be developed by meeting with stakeholders on campus and seeking resolutions of support, according to Kristen Jamieson, a member of Sustainable UH.
Once the policy is drafted, the administration needs to approve it before it can be integrated into university operations.
According to Interim System Sustainability Coordinator Matthew Lynch, such a ban aligns with the Board of Regents’ executive policy, which states the university is “committed to social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability in operations; education, research and service; planning, administration and engagement; and cultural and community connections.”
“A ban on single-use plastic water bottles at the UHM campus represents a leverage point to help the university reduce our total solid-waste stream and would be a significant step towards establishing a campus culture that integrates sustainability values in an island context with global impact,” Lynch said in an email interview.
The policy also charges the UH president and the chancellors to establish “system-wide and, where appropriate, campus-specific metrics and targets for improved efficiency and reduced resource waste for buildings, climate, dining, energy, grounds, purchasing, transportation, waste and water” and develop initiatives to further reduce waste.
Although teaching assistant positions campus-wide are safe for next semester, a group of students and faculty are still lobbying for the university to use a new budget model.
Since its Nov. 17 rally, the group Fix UH Mānoa has been advocating for a budget that would distribute funds based on student enrollment. For three days, the group sat in at the Campus Center courtyard to raise awareness about the campus’ fiscal situation.
“We want there to be a dynamic allocation so that if there’s increased teaching, increased enrollment, then the units, the colleges that are having that increased enrollment get an increased amount of funds to increase their costs associated with the increased enrollment,” Bret Polopolus-Meredith, Fix UH Mānoa secretary, said.
The group wants the chancellor to meet its demand of a new budget-allocation model by December.
“We understand that there’s a budget task force, but their timeline is too slow,” he said, referring to the task force’s goal of recommending a new process for the allocation of general and tuition funds in January.
According to Kathy Cutshaw, vice chancellor for administration, budget and operations, the campus is currently spending its reserves – which have gone from $99 million in fiscal year 2011 to $13 million in fiscal year 2014 – as a result of spending more than what it brings in.
This school year, the schools were asked to only spend what they were allocated to balance their budgets.
Balancing the budget
According to College of Natural Sciences (CNS) Dean William Ditto, based on standard accounting practices, the college expects to run in the black even though it is not reducing teaching assistant positions. Ditto could not be reached by the time of publication to elaborate.
Earlier this month, faculty and teaching assistants in the CNS were informed that the number of teaching assistant positions would be reduced for the spring semester, according to Polopolus-Meredith. He said that positions within the Biology department would decrease from about 40 to 25.
According to Ditto, cutting teaching assistant positions was only part of a “worst-case scenario” he projected if the college didn’t balance its budget.
“It really was just one of the multiple scenarios that we go through all the time,” he said. “It’s how we do budget planning to move forward.”
But he said the worst-case scenario for Spring 2015 would be cutting five to 10 teaching assistant positions throughout the entire college.
“Even the worst-case scenario is we were just trying to balance it,” he said. “If we just really had to look at trying to make significant cuts and anticipate cuts in the fall and all the rest, the worst case scenarios would have been about that.”
The college – which has a budget of approximately $20 million a year, not including the $30 million it brings in from research – employs approximately 150 to 180 teaching assistants, depending on the given semester.
A little over $three million dollars a year is allocated for these salaries.
The college also generates approximately $20 million a year in tuition alone but receives about $3.5 million.
According to Ditto, the college’s fall budget in the fall depends on a variety of factors, for example a new budget allocation model.
“That’s really a university discussion.” he said. “We haven’t established our budget for next year.”
Concern for teaching assistants
On Nov. 19, Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman issued a statement, reiterating his commitment to preserving campus-wide teaching assistant positions for next semester.
“The graduate students have my assurance that none of them is at risk of losing his or her job because of any near-term budget action that has been proposed,” he said. “Likewise, we remain committed to ensuring that core/required course availability will not be negatively impacted by the decisions that are being considered today.”
He added that the campus is experiencing real financial pressure, but it is working to improve budget transparency with clearer data.
Richard Coleman, a teaching assistant for the biology department, thinks that the move of the upper administration is a good one, but it still doesn’t resolve anything for Fall 2015.
“Although we were given assurance that there won’t be cuts on the magnitude that was given in the early stages of this current crisis, the actual numbers will remain uncertain until the budget model is selected which will occur in the next few weeks,” he said in an email interview.
He added that there are at least nine marine biology students who did not receive a teaching assistant position. However according to Ditto, that is due to an overenrollment of marine biology students. They are in discussions with the administration to find other options.
The number of teaching assistants hired is determined by the number needed to cover undergraduate courses, Ditto said. In his college, most of the course demands is in laboratory sections of courses.
“We are committed to providing enough seats in lab sections to accommodate all the undergraduates that want to take any of our undergraduate courses,” he said. “At this point, we have hired the number of TA’s needed to meet this demand. If student demand for a course expands unexpectedly, we will hire additional TA’s to meet that need.”
Marguerite Butler, an associate professor in the biology department, also thinks the campus’ budget situation needs to be resolved.
“They are still holding units to balancing their budget by the end of next year and so that means that cuts didn’t occur next semester are going to be intensified the following year,” she said. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.”
Butler added that there was a lot of confusion when students with teaching assistant positions and faculty were told the number of teaching assistant positions would be reduced.
“Certain faculty were told they weren’t going to be able to have TA’s, that the students of those faculty were not going to get support and so they just counted how many that would be,” she said. “But it was really like … just a really every day the situation was changing because no one had any clear direction as to what the bottom line was.”
Looking into budget models
According to Cutshaw, the current budget model is historically based, which means that the new budget is based on the previous year’s budget.
“It’s not based on metrics, such as how many student semester hours they teach, it’s not based on how many faculty members they have, it’s not based on any formulaic distribution of funds,” she said. “It’s based simply on history. You had this last year; you get this next year.”
Since the campus is currently spending its reserves, a budget committee formed to look at options for permanent budgeting of the campus’s resources based on output, such as degrees awarded.
“It could be based on student semester hours, or it could be based on number of graduate degrees; it could be based on a lot of outputs. That’s being discussed by the committee,” Cutshaw said. “And percentage that would go back to the units is what we’re playing with now.”
Currently the 14-member committee – consisting of the four vice chancellors, four deans, faculty members and representatives from ASUH and GSO – is looking for an output to use for allocation, but it still has to investigate the models it’s considering before rolling them out.
“Other universities that have done them have taken years and years to implement them because they’re complicated,” she said.
A possible budget model
On Nov. 19, the campus faculty senate approved a resolution encouraging the adoption of a budget model that values transparency, accountability, equity and predictability.
According to David Chin, chairman for the department of Computer and Information Sciences, the Responsibility Center Management (RCM) model aligns resources with the units that generate them. Chin gave a presentation on the model to the faculty senate at their Nov. 19 meeting.
At the University of Florida, which has adopted this model, its different revenues – state general funds, tuition revenues, indirect cost recovery and leverage and strategic initiative funds – go into responsibility centers, which can be departments, colleges or schools. According to Chin, the model has multiple versions, including one that goes down to the departmental level and another that goes only to the college or school level.
Each responsibility center would receive a large percentage of the revenue it generates, and each center would get to keep leftover funds at the end of the year.
The responsibility centers would pay their proportionate share to support the support centers, including areas like student services, academic support and general administration.
According to Chin, another aspect is subvention of the model, which is like a tax on revenues that all responsibility centers have to proportionally pay. This would be used to fund strategic initiatives both at the university and college levels.
“Our concerns about the level of allocations right now and the lack of reasoning for those allocations seem to be well addressed by the Responsibility Center Management model,” Polopolus-Meredith said.
He also likes that in addition to programs receiving allocations to cover costs, the model gives incentive to improve the programs and increase enrollment.
However, there is still concern on how the campus administration will handle a new budget model like the RCM.
“So because there’s no actual guidelines or requirements, I don’t have any faith that the current administration will actually implement that kind of model in good faith because it’s too vague,” Butler said. “I am personally in favor of something that tracks costs and rewards positive productivity, but I am afraid that … there’s going to be lip service to saying they’ve adopted it but they’ll just basically just figure out a way to keep doing what they’ve been doing.”