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I almost sued my University.

Posted by kevinwolz on May 21, 2011

A quick interlude from Costa Rica posts for this one that I never had the chance to post before I left:

A few weeks ago, I wrote my traditional post reflecting on my classes for the semester. While I definitely learned a lot in my classes, this semester would probably best be described as a predominantly extracurricular learning experience. Sure, I’ve always been involved in a bunch of organizations and groups, but I think those activities did more to make me grow as person this semester than anytime before. So, here’s another post reflecting on my extracurricular experiences of last semester.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request: Coal Ash

I should probably start with the project that explains the somewhat dramatic title of this post. My University receives half of its electricity and all of its steam from a coal/natural gas power plant located on campus…two blocks from my apartment. Last year, Students for Environmental Concerns (the premier student environmental group on campus) launched a “Campuses Beyond Coal” campaign with the ultimate goal of getting our campus to stop using coal and switching completely to natural gas until renewable sources can be realized.

As part of this campaign, we wanted to know more about the toxic waste product that comes out of the plant, known as coal ash (it’s the same concept as the ash in your fireplace, except this stuff is carcinogenic and has every heavy metal you can think of in it). To get this information, a friend and I FOIAed the University. FOIA is an amazing state law that allows citizens to request any public document. Since the University is a public institution, it is subject to this law as well.

The University subsequently provided us with the requested document but redacted (blacked-out) ALL of the information that we wanted in the document. The University cited certain exemptions in the FOIA law that allowed them to do this, claiming that the information we wanted constituted “trade secrets.” Seeing as environmental organizations get this information all the time and that the University’s rational seemed completely bogus, we asked the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to review the request.

At this point the story gets a bit boring and drawn out. Suffice it to say that Illinois Public Access Counselor did, in fact, review our request and that this process involved a lot of letters written by all parties, with the University basically just doing a lot of whining.

After several months of review, the Attorney General ruled in our favor for about half of the information we wanted (coal ash content and disposal method). This was a huge success! Unfortunately, however, the law is written in such a way that makes this ruling not much more than a “recommendation” to the University. So, after the ruling, we waited….and waited…and waited. This is where I almost sue my University. Unfortunately, if the University didn’t comply with the ruling, litigation (with the help of the Sierra Club) was the next step. Luckily, however, the University eventually came through, and we now have the information we sought!

Since the information came at the last second, reviewing the contents and determining what to do next is a task for next semester.

The learning experiences associated with this project were immense. This was my first intense involvement with the legal system and the (crazy) politics associated with it. Also, we received quite a bit of press during this project, which was another experience in itself.

Student Sustainability Committee (SSC)

Late last fall, I was chosen to serve on the SSC, a committee of ten students that manages the pool of money generated through the University’s sustainability fees ($13 per student per year, totaling just over $1 million per year). Due to the members’ dedication and our rather large pool of money, the SSC holds quite a bit of power on campus, especially during the current budget crunch. The committee solicits proposals for sustainable projects on campus as well as spearheads the creation of some larger-scale projects. I view my participation on the SSC as one of the most important things on do on campus because, regarding sustainability, we are the ones who get things done. My primary activities on the committee included the following:

  • Campus Wind Turbine: The campus wind turbine project has been 6 years in the making, but now, not even a month ago, the project was killed by the University. I am going to save myself the distress of retelling the story and point you towards this newspaper article which has a good summary of the project. We fought hard this semester to save a project on its last legs. While we may have lost the battle, the war is still certainly in our hands, and students will continue to push for campus innovation and investment in sustainability. I learned a lot through participating in this project, the most important being how to negotiate. Throughout the semester I had the privilege of representing students at several meeting with the University President, Chancellor, and other high-level administrators. So starts my political career…
  • Sustainable Student Farm: I’ve ben working with the farm since last fall, but the focus this semester was on creating a business plan and sound finances. This was quite a difficult task, and we are definitely still working on a sound plan (see iFAP below), but the experience was nonetheless very rewarding.
  • Large-Scale Food Composting Plan: This was a big one. Once again, I have been working on this project since last October, but everything really started coming together this spring. The SSC wants to fund a large-scale composting project on campus, and I was placed in charge of basically figuring out how to do this…and then, of course, getting it done. I have dealt with workers and administrators from almost every department on campus, and, in summary, it has been CRAZY. The logistics of this project have been insane…from making engineering calculations and massive Excel spreadsheets to navigating political games and financial negotiations. During the process, I have both made friends and also discovered who to avoid. I have been lied to, stabbed in the back, avoided, stonewalled, and more. University politics and red tape are simply ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had some advances late in the semester, and good things are hopefully happening this summer. A successful composting operation will certainly be a great asset to our campus, but more importantly, this project has done wonders to teach me the inner workings of my campus and how to GET THINGS DONE.

Illinois Cross Country & Track Club Reorganization

Mid-way through the semester, the running club I’m part of began the slow process of reorganizing our club (the grad students that so strongly lead our club will be graduating relatively soon, and we felt it necessary to restructure in order to ensure that the club could function without them, as it will need to in the future). This process started with many long conversations and one large “town hall meeting” in my apartment (aided by our large white boards of course). Eventually, I sat down and rewrote much of our nine-page constitution based on these conversations, and we’re now proceeding at full speed with a new structure, new goals, and even more energy. I absolutely cannot wait to see the awesome things we do next year. Suffice it to say that throughout this process I learned quite a bit about politics, organization structure, communication, and leadership in general.

Honors House Prairie Garden

This project wasn’t much until spring hit, but once the ground thawed I was all in. I won’t say anything about the project here since I already have a post dedicated to it, but I will say that biggest learning experience this project gave me was how to complete a project on a (very) low budget…a good skill to have in Illinois at this time.

Illinois Food Action Plan (iFAP)

This project was just ramping up at the end of the semester and is still in its infant stages. Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time throughout the semester brainstorming how to pull the project together. Several years ago, the President of our University has signed a long document called the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). This document outlines the many things that our campus needs to do to reduce its carbon footprint and become more sustainable. One specific target of iCAP is that 30% of all campus food be purchased within 100 miles of campus by 2015…a goal that, in my opinion, we are currently not on track to achieve.

Consequently, I decided to take the necessary steps to organize a working group of all campus and community stakeholders in order to construct a plan that would lead us to success in this arena. I managed to get the group situated and conversation off the ground before I left, but now they are on their own to do some great things over the summer. Typically, I can facilitate meetings very well, but I’ve had some difficulty with this group…mainly because almost everyone sitting at the table with me has a PhD, and I don’t. This makes it very difficult and awkward for me to interrupt them or direct the meeting in a certain way. Nevertheless, the many relationships and large network that I have formed in my first two years at U of I are now proving strong enough to produce some real change. Of course, the knowledge that I gained during all my experiences last summer is now proving to be a major asset as I strive to push for change on my own campus.


Wow, that was a long post. But this is exactly what I’m talking about when I encourage people to take control of their education and their future. Classes are important, but not nearly as important as the lessons that can be learned working on real projects with real people creating real change.

Not to mention, it’s reassuring to reflect on this after you check your semester grades and see the first B you’ve ever gotten…


2 Responses to “I almost sued my University.”

  1. David said

    I wish I could “like” this post without having to join wordpress. So, I like the post Kevin. Have fun in Costa Rica. It will be interesting to see what next year brings.

  2. Roger said

    One B is not so bad considering all the “A” work you have been doing for these other projects.

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