Illustration by Aleah Green

A look into NAU’s annual budget report shows a six-figure drop in funding for the Office of Sustainability.

On a cursory visit to NAU’s website, one would likely first click on the tab titled ”About NAU." In the subsequent drop-down menu, there are links to pages that presumably represent NAU. Among those links, right next to the Office of the President, is the link to the sustainability page.

For many sites, a fair amount of digging is required to find anything about environmental sustainability. However, NAU is quite the opposite. In fact, you rarely have to go far into NAU’s site or campus before you encounter a promotion of one green initiative or another.

This emphasis on sustainability hardly seems coincidental. When you talk to students around the school and ask why they came to NAU, the answer often has to do with the natural setting of NAU's location. Advertisements for the school often showcase the photogenic background of the San Francisco Peaks and wooded pathways.

Not surprisingly, according to a survey released by NAU, 97% of people surveyed said that NAU being a leader in sustainability was between "moderately important" or "extremely important" to them, with "extremely important" being the highest ranking of importance and "not at all important" being the lowest. It makes sense that these students would want their school to mirror their enthusiasm for nature.

However in 2018, local operating funds for the office of sustainability dropped from nearly $200,000 to zero dollars.

According to the NAU Budget Office, the funds for the Office of Sustainability came from an $18 million contract in 2012 with NORESCO, an energy services company. The aim of this contract was to decrease energy costs by promoting efficiency. These funds ran out in 2018. Since then, the Office of Sustainability has been almost entirely funded by the state operating budget of around $60,000 per year.

This budgeting and allocation greatly reduces the money available to the pursuit of sustainable practices. There are two other funds that help finance green initiatives on campus: the Environmental Caucus and the Green Fund.

The Environmental Caucus is a grassroots volunteer group made up of seven action teams that incorporate student, faculty and staff work to design and implement initiatives that promote a more sustainable university.

The Green Fund is used to finance different sustainability efforts. It is made possible by a $15 fee charged to every student at the beginning of a new semester.

According to the budget reports, there is a significant disparity between what students pay for NAU’s sustainability and what the university itself is willing to put forward for a more environmentally friendly university. The student-driven Green Fund ended the 2020 fiscal year with total expenses at nearly $350,000.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Caucus, which is funded by the University Central Administration, has had consistent annual expenses of just $52,000. A little more than half of the state operating budget comes from tuition so students are paying for half of the $61,724 that the Office of Sustainability still gets.

To put these numbers into context, NAU spent $15.3 million on athletics and $5.1 million on the president's office in 2020.

This seems to communicate something about the university's priorities in relation to the students who fund the university. I have yet to find a survey that discovers 97% of students think NAU being a leader in athletics is important. However, the survey numbers do reflect students' priority of environmental sustainability.

When a school defines itself by its natural surroundings as much as NAU does, it is perfectly reasonable to expect financial priority to be given to the environmentalist values it boasts. However, when a school chooses to provide relatively dismal funding to its groups in charge of implementing those values, it sends the message that the natural beauty featured in NAU advertisements are merely marketing ploys to make environmentally-minded students more comfortable with dropping tens-of-thousands of dollars into the hands of a corporate entity.

In reality, the school we are all funding is cutting the already meager costs put toward sustainability, seemingly because it isn’t profitable enough.

However, sustainability is not necessarily unprofitable. Estimates at the beginning of the NORESCO project, in 2012, suggested that the switch to efficient energy-saving strategies could save upward of $1.5 million per year.

In an interview, Chair of the Environmental Caucus Erik Nielsen suggested a revolving Green Fund that would take the savings gained from sustainable initiatives and put it back into a trust that could then be used by these organizations to further improve NAU. This seems like the least the university could to fund their claims of sustainable practice.

Climate change poses a grave threat to human life on our planet. NAU has the opportunity and the responsibility to make significant changes to reduce its emissions and lessen its environmental impact. Instead, it is greatly reducing its funding for sustainability and its emissions are as high as they have ever been, with a 19% increase in emissions between 2007 and 2018.

Luckily, students have a great amount of influence on an institution that derives the majority of its funding from tuition and student expenditure. Furthermore, contacts for every employee within the university are a matter of public record. Those who would like answers on why there isn't more being done to promote campus sustainability can send an email to responsible parties and demand action.