Students and alumni of Pennsylvania State University — my school and Pennsylvania’s flagship land grant institution — recognize that the climate crisis is personal. The Keystone State accounts for almost 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to get warmer almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, having already suffered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure damage.
But Penn State can help spearhead Pennsylvania’s efforts to combat climate change. With over 700,000 living alumni, the world’s largest tuition-paying alumni association, and a massive $4.6 billion endowment, the university has the resources and reach to ensure Pennsylvania does everything it can to serve its residents to secure a future worth living.
Unfortunately, Penn State has refused to take any significant action, despite the fact that many of its students have made it very clear that this is what they want. Last year, thousands of them took part in a student government referendum 91 percent agreed that Penn State should divest from fossil fuels. thousands of students signed a petition urging Penn State to achieve carbon negativity in operations as soon as possible. Students on the Penn State Student Fee Board commits $250,000 annually Fund projects that advance environmental sustainability on campus.
Penn State’s highest governing body, the 38-member Penn State Board of Trustees — who are mostly affluent, white, male, and over 65 years of age — is the body that ultimately makes decisions on behalf of the Penn State community. In response to students’ calls to action, board members Respond that students’ opinions on the climate crisis are “diverse” and claim that taking bold action “is not really what students want”.
But it’s not their future that’s being shattered by the climate crisis, and Penn State students and alumni are tired of waiting for out-of-touch, unrepresentative curators to see the reality of climate change. Fortunately, the beauty of a democratic system is that people have the power to make change. Each year, Penn State alumni elect three alumni to the Board of Trustees. Typically, the election is a non-event, with status-quo candidates championing “transparency” with no concrete plans.
But this year, students and alumni came together to launch Penn State Forward, an effort to put climate action and other student priorities right on the ballot. Even without years of campaigning by many other candidates, we collected hundreds of signatures to put three young, forward-thinking candidates on the ballot: Dr. Christa Hasenkopf, Dr. Ed Smith and Dr. Farnaz Farhi. All three bring professional expertise and personal experience that make them exceptional candidates for the Board, with strong backgrounds in climate science, higher education, global health, and diversity and equity. They not only understand the realities of the climate crisis, but how it will impact Penn State and our broader communities, and what Penn State can do about it. They stand ready to advocate for fossil fuel divestment, carbon neutrality, climate change education and research, and partnerships across the Commonwealth to invest in clean energy and jobs.
Elections to the Penn State Board of Trustees seem inconsequential, which explains why only about 3 percent of all eligible alumni vote each year. Of that 3 percent, most voters graduated in the 1970s or 1980s. Young people had no reason to vote in these elections because nobody ever bothered to listen to them. But we’ve seen what can happen when movements are able to mobilize younger and more diverse voters around causes and candidates that speak to them, and we’re bringing the same energy to Penn State and the climate crisis.
This year, the Penn State community has a unique opportunity to choose a new direction for our university. We have the opportunity to vote for a Penn State that is committed to climate solutions and not afraid to think big. And this Penn State can lead Pennsylvania—and our world—to a more just and sustainable future. The election begins on April 10th. If you are a Penn State graduate—or know a Penn State alum—claim your ballot today and plan to vote in the 2022 Alumni Trustee election.
Together we can move Penn State forward. And if you’re not a Penn State graduate, bring that same energy to your own university. Younger generations are tired of waiting for action on climate change. These institutions will not change on their own, but we can create them.