Letter from President Katsouleas to the UConn Community: Oct. 2, 2019

To the UConn Community:

I write to you today about the issue of environmental sustainability and our goal of further reducing UConn’s carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change.

In 2008, UConn signed the Carbon Commitment, whereby we committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  UConn developed a Climate Action Plan (CAP), which proposed nearly 200 actions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and was updated in 2017 to include more specific strategies and metrics.  Through December 2018, UConn had achieved a 15% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions vs. a 2007 baseline, despite growth in enrollment of more than 20% and the addition of nearly 800,000 square feet of new building space since then.

The university set interim emissions reduction milestones to gradually achieve our long-term goal.  I have decided to accelerate the pace of those milestones. In keeping with a recent executive order from Gov.  Ned Lamont, I am today committing UConn to working toward the governor’s goal of a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. I will also be asking our leadership team to explore and assess a more ambitious schedule as described further below.

UConn has made great progress with respect to increasing our sustainability across the board, especially with respect to energy and water use, and we have been recognized for it.

And yet it is not enough.  While we have taken important steps forward, we have not fully met the goals we set for ourselves in 2008 and there is much more work left to do in the years ahead.

Though the world has been warned about our rapidly warming climate for decades, for much of that time many regarded it as a future problem, to be addressed by future people.  Today, we are in the midst of that future.  This generation of Americans are seeing and experiencing the effects of climate change in our own lives and across the globe in ways past generations either did not, or were not aware of.  And if warming continues unabated, we know that we will see ever-greater consequences in our own lifetimes, especially those born in more recent years.  Climate change is more than an emergency; it is a global crisis worsening by the day.

Given this, there is a strong feeling of urgency that the world and its institutions, including universities, accelerate goals to drastically reduce emissions.

This issue is of the utmost importance to the UConn community, including myself, and we have an obligation to explore setting more ambitious goals than we already have.  But any commitment we make must be real.  By that I mean it must be truly achievable and realistic based on data, analysis and the best estimates we are able to make about things like cost, technological capabilities and pace.  Promises not backed by facts and strategy are empty, and I would always prefer honesty and realism to the alternative.

There is widespread agreement on the imperative of reducing emissions.  The questions for us, as always, are:  What is achievable within the boundaries of our fiscal resources and the need to operate the university, and how quickly can we get there?

I believe that UConn can be more coordinated and deliberate in our analysis of what is possible and in planning for our long-term goals in this regard.  Reducing carbon emissions, as an issue, does not “live” in any one place at the university; rather, it is a thread that runs through numerous separate and decentralized units and operations at UConn and decisions are made every day that impact it.

We have sustainability planning committees and advisory councils, all of which do important work that must continue.  But I believe that our analysis and discussions about our goals and policies must happen in concert with discussions about resources and priorities, as one is dependent on the other and there is a natural tension between them.  Setting priorities and aligning budgets to support them is always about making choices.  It is not the case that certain priorities “cannot” be funded within reason; it is the case that funding one often means taking resources from others, requiring trade-offs in the form of compromise and sacrifice. These are difficult decisions that need to be made thoughtfully and transparently.

As has been suggested by our students, I plan to create a centralized working group to take responsibility for coordinated analysis, policy formulation and strategic planning on issues of sustainability, particularly reducing emissions.  Such a group will build on our valuable efforts to date, and must include the expertise necessary to generate and analyze creative approaches.  It must also include our students, who are key stakeholders in the process.

Before doing so, I need to gather feedback from our community on the specific function of such a group, its membership and processes.  This semester, a special committee of the Board of Trustees known as the Trustee-Administration-Faculty-Student (TAFS) Committee will meet.  UConn’s efforts to reduce our emissions and achieve the future sustainability we desire will be its sole agenda item.

I have also committed UConn to embark on an update of our Sustainability Framework Plan, which is part of the Campus Master Plan.  This update will be informed by our overarching goals and both the working group and the TAFS committee I mention above.

I have been asked about divesting from fossil fuels.  Although the university itself does not hold investments, we are actively engaged with the UConn Foundation, which does.  The Foundation is a non-profit charitable organization with its own governing board.  But this is a topic its board continues to discuss, knowing the sentiments of our community.

Being a responsible environmental citizen is the right thing to do.  We may not be able to solve the problem, but at the very least we can reduce our contributions to it while increasing our contributions to the scholarship surrounding it.

As importantly:  Despite the urgency of the threat climate change poses and the firmness of our understanding of it, the response of our own government and many others across the globe remains inadequate.  As a major research institution with an identity tied to our land and sea grant status and history of sustainable stewardship, UConn has the ability to contribute to fighting climate change and increasing resilience through research, education and our own reduction of emissions.  Through these three combined, we can best help to demonstrate to others what is possible.

More to come.


Thomas Katsouleas


University of Connecticut