News & Views » David Walters

Democracy Disdained

UNC-Charlotte students' votes deemed "uninformed"


Democracy depends on details. It matters in even the smallest instance. While we often define our political system in terms of great struggles in national and international arenas, local examples and actions can reinforce our values or erode their credibility as a means of progressive government.

Compared with the Sisyphean tragedy being played out in Iraq, an issue of student governance on the campus of UNC-Charlotte seems inconsequential at first sight. But a closer examination reveals a conflict that questions to what extent the democratic process matters, or even if it matters at all.

The question concerns an initiative by students to have their new student union building designed and certified as complying with "LEED" criteria. LEED stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design," a national program to encourage building owners, architects and engineers to produce buildings that use less energy, save resources and are less destructive to the environment. Designers can achieve those objectives in a number of ways, ranging from sensitive site selection and careful conservation of natural resources like water quality and habitat protection, to the reuse of recycled building materials.

More specifically, to comply with LEED standards, buildings can reduce their reliance on artificial heating and cooling by integrating natural systems of cross ventilation, cutting heat gain by shading windows, and employing heavier materials to store daytime heat and release it during colder nights. There are even new methods of dehumidifying air without the normal huge energy cost of air conditioning. In addition, solar and wind power can reduce reliance on conventional, polluting, smokestack power stations and their nuclear brethren, facilities that are now potential terrorist targets.

Just think how different, and probably safer, America would be if our buildings used less energy. We'd be less reliant on Middle East oil, and thus less likely to be embroiled in deadly wars in that benighted region. Our natural environment would be spared environmental rape and pillage for a few year's supply of precious oil, and we'd be breathing cleaner, healthier air.

A group of UNC-Charlotte students understands this very well. Composed mainly, but not exclusively, of designers from the College of Architecture, the group, calling themselves The University Development Initiative (UDI), promoted the idea of LEED certification for their new union building, because in a moral sense, the building is "theirs" -- it's funded from student fees rather than taxpayer dollars. The new building presented an opportunity to prod the university administration (my employers) into taking a much needed leadership position in the region about good design and energy conservation.

We need such leadership urgently. Charlotte has very few "green" buildings, none of them at the university. By contrast, the University of South Carolina's first LEED certified green building, the West Quad, is scheduled to open this fall to much acclaim.

In the tradition of American grassroots politics, and following all university rules, UDI placed a motion on the ballot in recent student government elections, proposing an extra $10 a semester levied on student fees for two years to provide extra funds for making the student union "green." The motion passed 719- 658. But ironically, the extra money shouldn't be needed. The building on the South Carolina campus will cost less than conventional structures, and that's not counting the approximately 30 percent savings in energy bills that will save future taxpayers' dollars.

However, the President of the Student Body, Stefanos Arethas, who campaigned against the initiative, petitioned the UNC Chancellor, Dr. James Woodward, to ignore the democratic vote, because of its "very small margin of victory" (52-47 percent)! Mr. Arethas also thought the vote shouldn't count because students had made an "uninformed decision" despite extensive publicity.

This cynical disdain for democracy shames the student body, shames the parent university by implication, and takes a casual swipe at this nation's founding principles of self-determination. It's neither the first nor the greatest strike against democracy America has suffered in its short history. But it's abhorrent just the same.

The architecture faculty has publicly backed the UDI students and urged the university administration to honor the referendum and commit the university to LEED certification, following the example of USC and other colleges in our region. In a letter to the Chancellor, we stated: "When a University establishes rules and those rules are followed, it cannot in good conscience set aside the outcome. This dismissal would undermine the faith of the University community in the fundamental principles of due process and in the integrity of University procedures. It is imperative for our students to know that their voices count and that the very initiatives we encourage in our classrooms -- informed opinions, active engagement, social and political participation -- do matter in this democratic landscape."

This local issue is a small stone thrown in a small pond. But the ripples -- implications for our political and environmental futures -- are far reaching. They touch us all.

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