Sunday, November 13, 2011

Marketing UVic greenly

I've had a hard time figuring out how to express this, but here's what one element of my frustration with UVic's 2011 draft Strategic Plan comes down to: the university's selling sustainability broadly and supporting it narrowly.

Take the fall/winter 2011/12 Green Guide, for example. Distributed as part of the Times-Colonist today (Nov. 13/11), subtitled A Resource Guide for Sustainable Living, and with its three lead sponsors being the TC itself, the CRD, and the university, it should make me happy to see UVic involved with it, but it doesn't. Sure, I'm glad that information makes it out there about battery recycling and low-VOC paint for kids' rooms and whatnot, but as it says on top of every page, this is "An Advertising Feature."

The Green Guide does include stories about UVic faculty involved in sustainability research and education, so that's great. In spite of my longstanding and deep discomfort with business and capitalism, I'm extremely proud of our Gustavson School of Business and its recently opened Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation (led by the inestimable Dr. Monika Winn). The online course modules on climate change developed by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions are proving both useful and valuable, and the university's research efforts toward green marine propulsion are to be congratulated.

But my first point is that faculty involved in these initiatives should be able to point to the Strategic Plan and say, "The university supports this work, as a matter of principle." Right now, the draft Plan offers no such explicit support.

My second point has to do with marketing more purely. When Maclean's wanted a photo to represent UVic on its page for BC universities, UVic provided a photo of an Environmental Studies student with a laptop, walking on rocks across water in Mystic Vale: very green-seeming. The draft Plan itself includes one photo of an ES sessional faculty member, I think from a course she teaches outside UVic proper at the Redfish School of Change, and another photo of students working at a local beach. And then there are the ads in the Green Guide and elsewhere.

If we can't point to specific items in the Strategic Plan and say, "This is how and why the university supports sustainability," then it's hard to read it as anything more principled than a marketing approach.

I'm proud of the university's efforts towards food security and supporting local food producers, so it's fine by me that the university promotes these activities in advertising. But when the Green Guide ad about campus food initiatives leads with "The University of Victoria is well-known locally for its beautiful campus and its strong commitment to sustainability," well, I need to know just where this commitment is explicitly articulated. The Strategic Plan doesn't make any such commitment, except for campus operations, just like every other university is working towards. If the Strategic Plan isn't the repository for the university's commitments, this leads me to two questions:
  • what exactly is this Strategic Plan going to be used for?, and
  • where else should I look for the university's list of commitments, anyway?

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