Mission failure at the University of Florida

A version published in the Gainesville Sun 3 September 2021

The mission of higher education is the maintenance and renewal of civilization. This statement comes as an epiphany to many who hear it for the first time. Public higher education in the US has been diminished at the hands of legislatures and business interests who believe that higher education exists solely to serve the economy.

This is belied by the data on what makes a student successful after college which shows that skills such as critical thinking and communication are of primary importance. Such transferrable skills are not designed for a specific market or industry, but rather reflect the outcome of faculty and institutions dedicated to a higher purpose.

The University of Florida is failing in this mission, and not just because it too frequently focuses on training students for specific jobs. More importantly, it is failing to protect the future of students through a new 30-year commitment to fossil methane as a source of energy to service an ancient steam-based infrastructure, and it is failing to protect the health of the University community by not implementing a vaccine and mask mandate. Given the astonishing damages from climate change over the last few years, and as more than 55,000 students return to the Gainesville area, it is impossible to argue that these two failures do not constitute a crisis.

A watershed moment for courage on climate and COVID has arrived and UF leadership has utterly failed. Arguably the ultimate cause of mission failure at UF is the state legislature and the governor. The political mandates that ideologically driven lawmakers have imposed on the state university system make it difficult, but certainly not impossible, for institutions to service a progressive agenda. President Fuchs made this abundantly clear during the recent Town Hall meeting with the university community in which he pointed to controls emanating from Tallahassee as the excuse for his complicity and lack of courage.

The consequences of the climate crisis are beyond dispute. We are out of time and out of any conceivable excuse for not acting. Yet the administration is supporting a plan to install a new power plant fueled by fossil gas rather than retrofit our campus to remove dependence on steam, which is generally created by burning fossil fuels. The combined heat and power design of the new plant will reduce, but not eliminate, fossil emissions. This has been moving forward quietly and large sections of the UF campus will be under construction for an extended period as this antediluvian agenda unfolds.

In Florida state government there is no meaningful programming on climate change and certainly no agenda to protect people and property as the consequences of 40 years of climate change denial play out. Our students who wish to stay in Florida after graduation will need to fend for themselves. Our ecosystems are failing, and insurance underwriters are pulling back. There will be little help from the state as this nightmare unfolds.

As the capstone of my almost 40-year career, I teach three courses on climate change and one on global change ecology to UF undergraduates. This year I am advising students to develop a personal strategic plan that includes how they may adapt to climate change and cope with the mess that they have been handed. I advise them to put science at the center of their planning regardless of their major. Numerous faculty stand ready to advise them as they chart this perilous path.

Failure of the UF administration to take a stand on these issues reflects an astonishing lack of responsibility to serve the overarching mission of higher education. I was president of a small liberal arts college in Maine for almost five years. I made some tough decisions and dealt with hard situations. In 2012 I led Unity College to become the first institution of higher education in the US to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

Today, more than $17 trillion is in the process of being divested and this includes numerous public institutions of higher education. UF’s investments are mostly shielded from the Sunshine Law because they are housed in the University of Florida Foundation, which is not subject to public scrutiny. As a president who took a significant fiduciary risk to honor a moral commitment, I am appalled that the UF administration would demonstrate such a profound lack of courage as to simply roll over and accept the use of fossil gas for a new powerplant.

I call for a vote of no confidence in this administration. It is time for us to push back on an agenda that will contribute to destroying the future for our kids and sicken or kill many Floridians in the near term. It is time for faculty at UF to demand better of our leaders.

2 thoughts on “Mission failure at the University of Florida

  1. Steve-your article is the first I’ve heard of the repower project at UF that will continue to depend on natural gas. Thirty years ago I subscribed to the concept of using natural gas as a bridge fuel to accelerate transition to a near zero-emission global energy system based on using sustainable energy sources to manufacture zero-emission energy carriers capable of using existing infrastructure; a 21st Century Zero-Emission Energy System. At the retail level, zero-emission motor fuels could then be manufactured & used used in high-efficiency “engines” to make end uses of energy emission free. Global conversion from carbon-based energy carriers to a 21st Century Energy System is the ONLY way to achieve 2050 emission goals. In other words, the oil & gas industry must be motivated to support this transition.
    It is now economically feasible to use solar & wind energy to make a zero-emission energy carrier–i.e. “green” electricity. Unfortunately, distribution & storage of electricity are major barriers to universal use. These twin problems can be solved with production of hydrogen and biofuels from many types of energy sources, ranging from renewable solar & wind to nuclear to reforming of carbon fuels with carbon sequestration offers. Incorporating “Green” & “Blue” electricity, hydrogen & biofuels into energy system planning for Florida will open many clean energy pathways that complement the direct use of renewable electricity. Specifically it is feasible to blend green hydrogen into natural gas pipelines and transport the mixture long distances; this approach can replace up to 20% of methane, by energy content, and this blended fuel can be used in a combined heat & power plant. Blending hydrogen with natural gas does not solve the problem of fugitive methane releases; that is a regulatory challenge that the natural gas industry MUST address if it hopes to play a role in powering the global economy. I suspect there are huge economic reasons for keeping the existing UF steam plant operating. The University of Florida could accelerate the transition to a 21st Century Zero-Emission Energy System by incorporating green hydrogen into its planned upgrade of its energy facilities. I believe FP&L is considering this option in their long range planning. I’d be happy to discuss opportunities & challenges.

    1. Thanks for this. Your review is consistent with what I understand about the engineering and energy technology. I read this stuff daily. Blue hydrogen is certainly possible, but not yet in Florida. Storage issues are being solved at a stunning rate. Major installations are underway in Florida.

      My most fundamental objection derives from three omissions: (1) The announcement buries the fuel source for the new plant. No clear mention of fracked methane as the power supply, (2) There is no reference to considerations of alternatives such as those developed at Stanford. When faced with the same system constraints and economics Stanford developed innovative engineering and decommissioned reliance on steam. (3) An alternative plan that schedules the progressive retrofit of buildings to remove dependence steam for cooling and dehumidifying while using progressively less fossil fuels until reaching zero emissions.

      I don’t buy the argument of fiscal constraints. UF has never in recent years been significantly limited by finances. It has always found the financing to do major projects, and new construction is mostly funded separately out of Tallahassee.

      It is my opinion that this entire plan was conceived and promoted by special interests and endorsed by political power in Tallahassee. The legislature and the governor have already pre-empted local rights with respect to recycling, packaging, and power sources.

      Mostly I object to the complicity and lack of courage shown by this administration. During my time as a chief executive I got to know many presidents and their institutions. The UF upper administration is not powerless to object and take a stand for our university and community. Executive salaries are obscene and their service should be to the higher mission of public education. I do not feel that the new power plant has been designed and is being implemented in good faith.

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