One of OU’s greatest features is its forested campus. Few universities can boast the wooded acreage we have, bequeathed to us by Matilda Wilson, a visionary who reinvented herself through hard work and determination, rising from the working class to become the most wealthy woman in the world.
Matilda Wilson gave the people of Michigan these forested acres. She recognized that this land is precious and wanted it to belong to the public. She founded the university to hold the land in trust.
The OU Vision Statement reads: “Oakland University will unlock the potential of individuals and leave a lasting impact on the world through the transformative power of education and research.” Despite Matilda Wilson’s vision and the University’s own Vision Statement, however, OU administrators propose to build a boutique hotel and shopping center on the corner of Adams & Walton. More shopping? Why do we need this? The university says they want to “leverage underutilized land,” but the word “underutilized” is a misnomer. It ignores the important work forests do for us: making oxygen, purifying water, storing carbon dioxide, regenerating the soil and preventing erosion. That list doesn’t even include the beauty and solace forests provide, and their effect on people driving through campus and walking in its woods. We preserve land because we know it’s important to all of us who pass through those green spaces, and because, given the current climate crisis, it is imperative that we stop the overdevelopment trend in the US, and instead start to preserve and protect our natural resources.
We need our administrative leaders to remember that they too can be visionaries like Matilda Wilson. They should lead the community, reminding all of us how important it is to recognize that our natural resources are finite, applying in their leadership “the transformative power of education and research,” rather than chasing revenue in a fashion that contravenes the very purpose of the university.
The end goal of human aspiration is not to develop shopping malls and turn a beautiful campus into a commercial development that will contribute to urban heat islands and rob us of the historical value of the OU campus. Instead, we should keep the forests that OU still has, so we have places where students can go to step away from their digitally-driven lives, and relax in the revitalizing green space. Where they can do biology research out in protected, valued forests, and sit under those trees to discuss the great American visionaries of the past and present.
How can those visionaries guide us today? Rather than destroying OU’s natural resources, we should be exploring ways to further utilize them—to leverage them in ways that complement and assist our educational mission. Perhaps community members would pay to enroll in “Nature Retreats” on campus. Perhaps educational tours of our forests and wetlands would increase interest in OU throughout southeastern Michigan. Has the administration explored such possibilities? Reached out to the OU community for ideas?
The OU Mission Statement begins “Oakland University cultivates the full potential of a diverse and inclusive community.” We need to include our students, the future leaders of the world. Faced with climate change, their job is to help us figure out how we can avert the devastating changes now wreaking havoc on our planet and threatening the lives of our children. Students can sit under OU’s trees and think about Matilda’s vision, as well as the visions of two great American thinkers, Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Berry. Thoreau said: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wendell Berry added: “In human culture is the preservation of wildness.”
We urge administration to put students first and lead by example as we enter this new phase of worldwide response to climate change. Teach the community that forests have an intrinsic value for people.