Student-organized forums about university water conservation planning in the California drought.
Problems and Purpose
A course on dialogue and deliberation organized three campus forums for Santa Clara University (SCU) students to discuss how the campus could conserve water in the historic California drought. The forums aimed to inform campus decision makers in Operations, Sustainability, and Residence Life.
Background History and Context
Like many organizations, SCU was confronted with rising water costs, the prospect of mandatory conservation measures set by the state, and difficult choices about whether to impose water rationing and transform the campus to reduce water usage.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The forums were organized as a whole-class project in a course on Dialogue and Deliberation. The Communication Department sponsored the forum. SCU’s Center for Sustainability provided information regarding the current state of the drought, its implications for the university, and steps SCU had already taken to conserve water.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were recruited through students’ personal networks, tabling outside the student center, and announcements on campus screens, flyers, and sidewalk chalking. In addition, professors in Environmental Science, Communication, Political Science, and Engineering were asked to recruit students from their classes. About half of the students who attended the forum received academic credit for doing so. Students who pre-registered received a two-page issue guide that summarized several approaches to water conservation. Over 75 students participated in the discussions.
Methods and Tools Used
Using an issue guide based on the National Issues Forum format and written by the class, participants learned about the California drought and what SCU is doing in response. Students then engaged in a World Café format to discuss three broad approaches to water conservation – voluntary measures, creating incentives to conserve, and mandatory restrictions – as well as more specific action steps. Participants were also invited to suggest their own proposals. Students then filled out a survey in which they rated each approach and action step, and evaluated the forum.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Each forum lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, starting with a brief presentation given by student organizers, based on research conducted by the class on the drought, SCU’s water conservation measures, and three proposed approaches to water conservation.
The forums adapted the World Café format to engage students in multiple small group discussions at round tables over snacks. Switching conversation groups encouraged people to stay engaged in the discussions, speak with a variety of people, and hear multiple points of view. Ideas were disseminated throughout the forum as participants brought them from table to table during each discussion round. All discussions were facilitated by students in the course, who were trained by exploring deliberation strategies and role-playing scenarios during class in the weeks leading up to the forums.
Participants then filled out a survey in which they rated each approach and action step, and evaluated the forum.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After analyzing the surveys and evaluating the forum in the attached report, students in the course presented their findings at a meeting with leaders from the campus Center for Sustainability, who drew on student input to plan further water conservation steps.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The attached report found that, while a majority of participants endorsed all three approaches to conservation, opinions differed on the action steps discussed.
- In general, students were most supportive of mandatory reductions to the remaining 15 percent of landscape irrigation that still relied on fresh water. Large majorities favored transforming SCU’s landscape by removing non-essential lawns in favor of drought-tolerant plantings, replacing fountains with other decorative installations, and replacing grass on all athletic fields with artificial turf.
- To reduce their personal use of water, students preferred educational and voluntary measures, and the application of positive and negative incentives. Nonetheless, majorities supported some potentially robust incentives that involve sacrifices, including installing shower timers that require users to push a button for a minute of water and limiting the number of loads of laundry students can do each month on campus. Students were less enthusiastic about metering water and charging heavy users more.
In their reasoning, students recognized the value of voluntary approaches for respecting students’ autonomy, being relatively cheap and easy to implement, and educating on-campus and off-campus students about how to use less water. However, many participants worried that stronger steps may be necessary because some people will ignore voluntary efforts or refuse to conserve if there are no repercussions, that education will not create a fast enough response, and especially that asking for “voluntary” steps made the drought seem less serious than it was. At the same time, students generally preferred incentives over required rationing or putting a price on water used in residence halls. Incentives were seen as respecting people’s different needs and abilities to pay for water, as well as avoiding unintended consequences, such as student resistance, diminished enrollments, and steep costs to implement water metering in residences.
Although some participants in the forums expressed strong doubts that SCU administrators would pay attention to their opinions, over half of participants said they thought that administrators would listen to the views expressed at the forum. Students who said they learned more about the steps the university has taken to conserve were also significantly more likely to express trust in administrators to listen to student views.