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Davis, California

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Column: A bright idea

A muckraker is a term that refers to a person “whose words helped to change the course of history and improve life for others,” a person “who continues to dedicate himself to exposing corporate crimes, political corruption and social injustice,” a person like Upton Sinclair who improved the conditions of the meatpacking industry by publishing The Jungle, a work of fiction.

As I watched our university’s state subsidies melt away around this time last year, I longed for my words to improve life for others too.

In the moment, like many students, I was taking a good hard look at my financial situation, then at increased tuition, then quizzically back at my financial situation. I wondered how other people (presumably with the capacity for compassion and humility) could allow college students to get so thoroughly screwed out of so much money. After all, we’re arguably the most vulnerable contributing demographic in American society. However, instead of being a romantic and parading down Russell with a bongo drum, I decided to spend a few days on the computer to find a surefire way our university could save money in the next five years.

At the time, UC Davis’ operating budget was roughly $1.7 billion, and our state government subsidized 35 percent of that. We had lost over $150 million or almost a quarter of our state subsidies since June 2008, which left over 7 percent of our total budget missing, the difference to be paid for by one of two parties: taxpayers or students. Students chose taxpayers (this is a public education after all, we argued), and everyone else chose us.

If there was a time for muckraking, this seemed to be it.

After looking at the budget more closely, I honed in on the smallest piece of the pie chart, the one I thought one student could actually be able to change – utilities, which cost our university $37 million each year, or 2 percent of our budget.

According to LUMEnergi, a Newark-based lighting solutions firm whose executives helped start UC Davis’ California Lighting and Technology Center, lighting accounts for 23 percent of all electricity consumption in the United States. This means that UC Davis pays an estimated $8.5 million a year simply to keep our classrooms adequately lit.

In the last two years, LUMEnergi has retrofitted lighting in government buildings in New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Texas and California, boasting “savings of over 50 percent … while increasing occupant comfort and enhancing building valuation.” In 2008 the University of California released its 500-page “UC Strategic Energy Plan,” which enumerated the ways in which every single building on our campus could be more efficient. If we had chosen to use the services of a firm like LUMEnergi and retrofit our buildings then, we could be saving $4 million in energy costs this year. That is a year of free tuition for 300 of UC Davis’ most deserving students. We could dole out free tuition like Oprah.

Our own CLTC’s website shows our students working on similar energy-efficient lighting systems and installing them at UC Santa Barbara, Chico State, Sacramento State and CSU San Marcos. Meanwhile, I drive by our brand new Robert Mondavi Institute buildings that boast “green innovation.” They have their lights on literally all night long.

“But Josh,” you retort, “the university is already broke. We don’t have money for things like that.” It turns out that energy companies like PG&E are mandated to charge their residential customers a small fee each month so they can fund renovations at worthy agencies, such as UC Davis. We have used these PG&E funds in the past for things like our Shields Library lighting retrofit, which saved us $115,000 in 2009. A university official told me that they actually put this savings aside to fund new lighting projects in our most energy intensive buildings, projects that have not come to fruition.

“So, Josh, you’re saying the university already receives money to retrofit our buildings’ lighting, and if they chose to actually begin doing so in earnest, they could save the next generation of students millions?”

Now you’re getting it.

I walked into a meeting with Chancellor Katehi’s Student Advisory Committee advocating exactly this. I presented my proposal artfully over 10 minutes to a group of students whose merits had made them representatives of our highest administrator, a group whose only purpose is to bridge the gaping chasm between student and chancellor.

I brought a common-sense solution to the administration at a time when others were threatening the lives of the UC Regents on Twitter. I never heard from any of them ever again, and the lights in the RMI buildings remain on all night.

A student’s words have the power to improve life for others. It’d be comforting to know someone at UC Davis is considering them.

JOSH ROTTMAN can’t wait to see how many logical holes Dan Garon can penetrate this week. Chancellor Katehi can reach him at jjrottman@ucdavis.edu.

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