Letter to the editor: The Wrong Project for the Wrong Time

Letter to the editor: The Wrong Project for the Wrong Time

The Wrong Project for the Wrong Time 

Over the past several weeks, we the Steering Committee of the Campus Alliance for Sustainability and the Environment (CASE-OU), have been learning more about the proposed development for the East Side of campus. After meetings, a careful review of available plans and documents, and a discussion of the proposal among ourselves and our constituents, we have concluded that this is the wrong project for the wrong time. We would like to articulate to the campus community the reasons for our strong and unequivocal opposition to mixed-use development of that section of campus:

  1. The project is philosophically at odds with Oakland University’s Healthy Planet Initiative and commitment to sustainability. Fundamental to our conception of sustainability is cultivating a different kind of relationship with the natural world, including a rejection of the notion that land (including campus space) exists simply to be used, that it is merely a “dead asset” or “stagnant resource” unless “leveraged” or “utilized” for economic gain. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has produced the climate crisis we’re currently facing and that has given rise to sustainability mandates in the first place. If Oakland University is serious—as the sustainability working group’s mission states—about “encouraging sustainable relationships, cultivating renewable habits, and working to generate ecological values that reflect our responsibility for engendering a more just and habitable world,” we must move swiftly away from the kind of economic development mindset that underpins the East Campus plan. Short-term (financial gain) considerations must give way to long-term visionary thinking that takes seriously the climate emergency and the call to withdraw from more of such energy- and resource-intensive development projects (see https://scientistrebellion.com/ ).
  2. The proposed development will cause environmental harm to the East Campus. The removal of a large plot of deciduous forest will result in lost habitats for wildlife, including migratory birds. Additionally, the impervious surfaces that will result from the proposed development will generate stormwater runoff and further degrade Galloway Creek, and exacerbate the already-significant heat island effects already present in Auburn Hills and Rochester.
  3. This development does not advance the university’s academic mission or serve student needs. Oakland University is, first and foremost, an educational institution, not a business enterprise. Nothing about the proposed plan appears designed to enhance or improve academic life (teaching and learning, research and the production of knowledge) except for the vague promise of future revenue. How will this development enhance students’ classroom experiences? Improve faculty morale? Support or enable faculty and student research? Solve the problem of scarce classroom space? Increase retention rates? Help students from underserved populations afford tuition and housing?
  4. Finally, there are important aesthetic problems with this project. Oakland University is fortunate to occupy a scenic property, whose beauty meant a great deal to Matilda Wilson. For too long now, the university has been slowly destroying that beauty with parking lots and capital investments of dubious value to the academic mission of the university, like the golf courses. Yet there is tremendous aesthetic and educational value in the campus’ natural spaces, which the university has been promoting recently with its “Living Classroom” campaign. Now is the time to invest in the protection and preservation of these spaces, not to destroy them. The corner of Walton and Adams is already besotted with traffic, parking lots, and retail establishments (many of them barely hanging on). The East Campus green space is a refuge against further suburban sprawl. How does yet more cookie-cutter commercial encroachment on campus property align with Matilda Wilson’s vision for the university or, for that matter, with a vision for a sustainable campus and a sustainable future?

We recognize that these are difficult times for public institutions of higher education. Solving those problems is going to require commitment and creative thinking. But we also believe strongly that we should be guided first and foremost by our values and our belief in the academic and social mission of the university. The plan as proposed does not appear to be guided by genuine commitments to those values or to a sustainable world. Nor is it an example of creative thinking; to the contrary, it is business as usual (and a university is not a business!). We believe that Oakland has an opportunity to become a regional leader in sustainable practices in higher education, but we won’t get there as long as we perpetuate unsustainable practices driven by fantasies of unending growth and development, rather than dedicating ourselves to creating lasting and ethical relationships with one another and the spaces we inhabit.

For all of these reasons, we are urging President Pescovitz and the Board of Trustees to abandon these plans and initiate instead a campus-wide conversation about alternative ideas for East Campus or for reinvesting in the academic mission and life of Oakland, ideas rooted in values of justice, care, and a commitment to developing genuinely sustainable relations with the nonhuman world.

The CASE-OU Steering Committee:

Alan Epstein, PhD, Special Instructor, Political Science

Jeffrey Insko, PhD, Professor of English

Laura Landolt, PhD, Associate Professor, Political Science

Shannan McNair, PhD, Associate Professor, Human Development and Child Studies

Lily Mendoza, PhD, Professor, Culture & Communication

Jane O’Neil, Community Member and OU Alumna

James W. Perkinson, PhD, Professor, Social Ethics, Ecumenical Seminary & OU Adjunct Faculty

Mozhgon Rajaee, PhD, Assistant Professor, Public Health

Scott Tiegs, PhD, Professor, Biological Sciences

Steph Wong, Undergraduate, Creative Writing and General Anthropology