A Green Vision that Paid Off: The Story of the UT Green Fund

Jacob Bintliff, UT alumni

 

Just a peek at the “to do” list of Jacob Bintliff, B.A. ‘10—currently working as an urban planner for the City of San Francisco—from his five years at The University of Texas at Austin. It is impressive and speaks to his strategic skill, energy and persistence:

Since 2011, the Green Fund—a grant fund paid for and allocated by students—has supported over 160 sustainability initiatives and research projects on campus with over $3 million in grants awarded to date. These projects include the UT Microfarm and Farm Stand, cutting edge air quality research, water bottle refill stations, and all manner of zero waste and recycling projects. The Green Fund was fueled by a national movement and years of capacity-building by students, and exists in large part to the energy and effort that Bintliff and others spent over a two-year period to make this vision a reality.

How did you get started in sustainability?

A couple of friends and I started a “Green Club” at my high school one day after getting into an argument with someone who had thrown trash in the recycling bin, and we got really focused on expanding recycling options at our school. So, when I got to UT in 2005, it didn’t take long before I connected with the Campus Environmental Center (CEC) which was operating a student-led plastic, glass, and aluminum recycling program with the administration’s support. We also worked to get the university to institutionalize a full recycling program, and we were passionate about institutionalizing the CEC itself as a sponsored student organization, which is something I was really proud to accomplish in 2009 with my CEC Co-Director, Lucia Simonelli.

How did you learn about Green Fees?

It’s a long story! The concept of “Green Fees” or “Green Funds” came on my radar when I was a CEC officer in 2006. The idea was getting national attention after schools like UC Berkeley started adopting them. I was personally really excited about the idea of running a campaign at UT because, as I saw it, we could build capacity for CEC by focusing on a clear goal and getting our name out there, and we could end up with a sustainable (pun intended) source of funds for all kinds of environmental projects. It seemed like such a win-win, but CEC had other priorities and felt that the “groundwork” hadn’t been laid for a major campaign, so I kind of put the idea on the back burner but kept looking into it on my own. I learned that Texas State had created an Environmental Sustainability Fee in 2003, and that it had required a change in state law, a vote of the student body, and approval from the Board of Regents. Yikes!

In Spring 2009, I decided to take advantage of the “Connecting Experience” option through the Bridging Disciplines Program to do a research project on the history of Green Funds. I identified almost 100 campuses where funds had been started and was able to interview people familiar with how they did it. The research essentially became the play book and FAQ guide for a campaign in Texas. It also showed me the importance of having a student-led committee in charge of the funds and what a reasonable fee amount might be. It was also helpful to know that Green Fees were not only a West Coast-type thing; the first one was at the University of Kansas in 1997, and they had emerged all over, even in “red states” like Utah and Georgia.

How did you make Green Fee (now Green Fund) a reality?

While doing my research, I also started working on the legislative process to allow for “environmental service fees” at public universities with ReEnergize Texas, a student group affiliated with Public Citizen. The group had been started by a former CEC director, Trevor Lovell, for students to advocate for environmental issues at a statewide level, and we agreed a Green Fee campaign would be an ideal issue to organize around. We connected with Austin’s representative in the Texas House, Democrat Elliott Naishtat, who approached his Republican colleague from College Station to co-sponsor the bill. The state senator from El Paso carried the bill in the Senate thanks to some great organizing by the students at UT El Paso.

But, it was still a big push. I remember for  Earth Day that year, we had students out on campuses all over the state calling their representatives to get the bill out of committee. I remember standing on the West Mall handing people my phone and a script. It was good old-fashioned grass-roots organizing, and it worked. Even though the legislature was totally gridlocked on voter ID that session, we were able to make the case that this was about giving students the power to vote on their own fees and demonstrate widespread bipartisan support. Our bill (HB 3353) was one of the very few items to actually get passed that year.

Now that we had the right to create Green Fees, we just had to get students to vote for it! A big part of my decision to do a 5th year at UT was so I could stick around to direct the Austin and statewide campaigns through ReEnergize Texas. We had five campuses that were able to get a Green Fund on the ballot for Spring 2010 elections: UT Austin, UT El Paso, UT San Antonio, University of North Texas, and our friends at Texas A&M. At UT, the Texas Exes helped with a grant of $5,000, and the campus administration and Student Government were very supportive and helpful. Our message was basically, this is our chance to spend our tuition dollars on what’s important to us. The slogan was “Think Green? Think Green Fund." When UT students voted in March, it passed by more than 70%, and we won on all five campuses that spring. Finally, we got the Board of Regents to approve the new fee that summer (it actually happened to be on my birthday), thanks to the support of our Student Regent and the overwhelming support among students.

What was the biggest challenge?

The recession was at its worst in 2009-10. It was a time of budget cuts and retracting state funding from public education, and UT was right in the middle of several years of tuition hikes. My tuition more than doubled in five years. So, it was not really the ideal time to convince students to raise their own fees! A lot of people tried to convince me that it had to wait, but I thought, no, the energy is there from the students so if we don’t do this now, when will we? In the end, the most important arguments in our favor were that some of the fee would go back into the financial aid pool and that students would be in charge of how the money was spent. Before I graduated, I worked with Student Government leaders to establish the rules for a student-majority committee to administer the fund.

What did you do after leaving UT?

Given the economy, grad school seemed like a smart option. I saw a flyer about the city planning masters at UT and it dawned on me that through my sustainability work on campus I’d basically been doing city planning all along. I saw it as a path to keep working on sustainability while also having a shot at a stable career, and I ended up getting a Master of City Planning degree from UC Berkeley. I started with a focus on environmental planning, and transitioned to housing and economic development policy because I felt like we have to make cities viable and inclusive if we’re going to have any chance dealing with climate change.  

After grad school, I worked for a planning consulting firm for three years. My first project was analyzing the carbon impact of doing rehabs of old buildings vs. new construction on military installations, and actually it was my sustainability background from UT that helped me get the job. Since 2015, I’ve been at the San Francisco Planning Department where I focus on housing policy and community benefit programs, like figuring out how much affordable housing we can feasibly include in new development projects.

Do you have any advice for students interested in sustainability?

Follow your interests wherever they lead, and remember that there are 110 ways to do what you’re interested in. I thought I was going to work for a nonprofit and pass climate change bills in Washington, but I learned the right path isn’t always the most obvious one. Also, I would say what you do with your time at UT matters. Last summer, I was back in Austin and went by the Harry Ransom Center, where I used to hang out in the plaza, and noticed the fresh xeriscaping (low-water landscaping), which I thought was awesome. Then I saw a little sign that said “this project was sponsored by the Green Fee.”  I was so proud to see the results of all that hard work from when I was a student still paying off. It reminded me we really can change the world for the better even when it seems impossible, and what an incredible opportunity a place like UT Austin offers to do that. So, don’t be shy!