UT Green Fee, supported student programs threatened by funding uncertainty

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Michael Bettati, mechanical engineering junior and hive manager of the BEEVO Beekeeping Society, holds up a frame of a beehive. The organization was able to begin growing a hive in part because of the Green Fee, a $5 fee added to UT tuition.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Standing by a lone beehive across the street from Speedway Garage, Michael Bettati, a mechanical engineering junior and hive manager for the BEEVO Beekeeping Society, grabbed the nearby beehive smoker, lighting a flame to create a thick smoke. He removed the top layer of the white, rectangular hive and provoked a few puffs of smoke from the metal contraption. Reaching into the hive — with his peers watching intently, camera phones in hand — Bettati pulled out a horizontal wooden rod, its bottom made up of honeycomb and packed with bees.
 

Mechanical engineering junior Michael Bettati examines smoke coming out of a beehive smoker. The smoke calms the bees, allowing Bettati, the hive manager for BEEVO Beekeeping Society, to open the hive. Photo by Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The group is one of many projects on campus funded from the Green Fee — a $5 per semester fee included in student tuition, which is aimed at supporting environmental projects and research at Texas universities. The fee has provided funding for 83 projects at UT since it was introduced in 2011, but its future is unclear. The fee may come to an end on campus come summer 2016, as the Texas Legislature and the UT System have conflicting ideas on how to renew the fee.

A 2009 bill by Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) allowed UT to set up the fee for five years, following approval in a student body vote. Based on the UT System’s interpretation of the law, legislative action was needed this past session to reinstate the fee on campus, but the necessary legislation did not pass, thus temporarily closing that route of renewal and leaving the fate of the fee — and the student projects that depend on it — in limbo.

Although the System insists the state legislature must pass legislation to authorize a renewal of the fee, Naishtat said the original 2009 bill was drafted with the intention that the fee, and its renewal, would be handled on a university level after its initial implementation.

To clear up the confusion, Naishtat filed one of two bills during the past legislative session clarifying that the fee could be renewed every five years by a student body vote. The bill passed through the House, but got stuck in the Senate and ultimately failed. Naishtat said he hopes to reintroduce the bill in the coming legislative session, but in the meantime, students are taking the fee’s implementation into their own hands.

Government senior Tanner Long and Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, an international relations and global studies senior, are looking to renew the fee through the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC), a group of students, faculty and administrators that submit recommendations for changes to University tuition and fees.
 

Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, international relations and global studies senior, left, and government senior Tanner Long have been working with the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee to renew the fee. Photo by Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Board of Regents previously indicated that they would consider a 2 percent tuition increase at UT System schools, prompting the TPAC committee to discuss the increase. If the board approves a tuition increase, the green fee could potentially receive some of the funds, creating a more permanent source of money for the fee.

“That’s our only option on the table right now,” Long said.

Student Government president Xavier Rotnofsky, who serves on the committee, will be pushing to keep the fee on campus.

However, he said the TPAC committee would not make an explicit request for the fee in the tuition increase proposal.

“Once the tuition increase is approved, and tuition does get increased, then it would be a top administrative level decision to decide where all the money goes,” Rotnofsky said. “At that point, it would be up to President [Gregory] Fenves to allocate the money for the green fee.”

Fenves is supportive of looking into including the fee during the tuition setting process, according to University spokesperson Gary Susswein.

Although discussions about how to renew the fee are taking place alongside talks of tuition increases, Kachelmeyer said re-instituting the green fee would not technically increase tuition.

“Really what you’re doing is subtracting five dollars and then adding five dollars,” Kachelmeyer said.

UT System spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo indicated that students could look into the tuition-setting route.

If the fee does not return to campus, new projects will not start as a result of the funding, something Mariana Silva, who works for Texas Green Tours, a fee-funded project, said she thinks would be detrimental to UT’s sustainability — especially since the fee allows students to take the lead on projects that might not happen otherwise.

 

 

 

Note that the following map markers appear further away from campus:
Center for Electromechanics: $61,561 over 2 grants (Pickle Research Campus)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (Other): $44,637 over 1 grant
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (Tree Nursery): $25,158 over 4 grants
College of Natural Sciences (Marine Science Institute): $61,050 over 1 grant (Port Aransas)

Interactive by Tom Li | Daily Texan Staff

Silva, a civil engineering senior, said students who are paid using the fee would also be impacted if it were eliminated.

As of June, 115 students have held the 63 campus jobs “related to sustainability,” most of which were implemented using the fee, according to an Office of Sustainability report.

“You have to have an incentive, if you’re dealing with students,” Silva said.

Graduate student Elise Worchel — who used the funding for part of her dissertation research on the impact of fungi on plant drought tolerance — said the loss of the fee would especially affect doctoral students who rely on the funding for their dissertation research.

“It’s so hard that you have such a great institution but then projects are limited because you get funding, and it shouldn’t be something that graduate students stress about,” Worchel said. “It should be the science.”

Elise Worchel, fifth year biology Ph.D. student, received funding from the UT Green Fee to research the effects of fungi on drought tolerance in plants. Photo by Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The Microfarm, one of UT’s longest running green fee projects, would be mostly unaffected by the loss of the fee. The Green Fee only funds projects for five years, and UT Microfarm is currently in its fifth and looking to become self-substantive and remain operative through a possible institutionalization, according to Stephanie Hamborsky, Plan II and biology senior and development director for the farm.

If the fee is not renewed on campus, self-sustainability may be one option if project leaders want their work to continue after their green fee money runs out. Farm Stand, a new project led by environmental science sophomore Daniela Pachon that partners with the Department of Housing and Food Services to sell produce to students, plans to do just that by operating off of proceeds.

Stephanie Hamborsky, Plan II and biology senior, pulls weeds during a workday at the UT Microfarm. The farm was able to start in part due to funding from the UT Green Fee, which may not exist in the future. Photo by Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Another option is the frugal route, like the one the BEEVO Beekeeping Society is taking. They have enough funding to keep their project up for the next few years, but are saving their money in case they are not able to reapply for the fee.

“We only developed a plan and a budget for two years, so it kind of made us think ‘oh, crap,’ maybe we shouldn’t be buying all of the things we were going to buy this year,” Melanie Brown, a nutrition junior and the club’s founder, said.

 

1 Exterior water fountain outside of RLM
60 Recycling bins in the Perry-Castañeda Library
39 Drinking fountains modified for filling reusable water bottles
2 Custom solar charging stations with ADA compliant seating and shade
677 Pounds of trash cleaned out of Waller Creek during a single service project
130 New parking spots for bicycles

Photos by Rachel Zein, Interactive by Tom Li | Daily Texan Staff

For other projects, remaining operative after this school year in the current capacity may not be possible without the fee. Green labs, for instance — a project that recycles lab materials such as Styrofoam, cold packs and single-use batteries — requires a purchase order each semester to offer Styrofoam recycling services. Without the fee, that aspect of the project may not be able to continue, graduate student Nathalie Kip, who works on the project, said.

“We’ve come this far and if we just disappear it would be sad,” Kip said. “There’s definitely a need for funding for us.”

Still, even with the unsure fate of the fee, Karen Blaney, assistant manager in the Office of Sustainability, said there is support to try and keep the fee on campus — the question is how.

“To our knowledge, there’s no one in the upper administration that’s against [the fee]. It’s just a matter of how it can be carried forward based on the rules and laws, and things like that, that apply to it,” Blaney said. “There is no bad guy. There is no, like, anti-environmental or anti-green fee boogeyman person.”