Ask for more than either/or

Drew Finke

Two weeks ago at the University of Michigan, Tadeusz Patzek, chair of UT’s Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, debated John Hofmeister, former Shell Oil CEO, about how to deal with the diminishing availability of cheap oil.

Hofmeister brashly declared that enough sources of carbon-based energy exist to sustain our current manner of living, if only there is enough political will to exploit it. The more soft-spoken Patzek explained that such actions would have environmental costs that could outweigh the benefits of the energy produced.

Both speakers placed blame on governments for failing to enact long-term energy policies. They did, however, disagree on the ways in which these failures would affect ordinary citizens. Patzek implored members of the audience to think ahead and start making small changes in the way they live that could help them adapt to a future with less abundant, more expensive energy. Hofmeister rejected the idea that Americans should have to make any lifestyle changes, but should instead tell their government to permit more aggressive domestic oil and coal extraction.

While the debate was billed as a discussion about energy policy, its proceedings demonstrated as much about the participants’ attitudes toward compromise as it did their opinions on the future of energy. Hofmeister’s position offered a narrow set of solutions that precluded a more holistic examination of energy use. He accepted the status quo as unchangeable. Meanwhile, Patzek’s stance called for an examination of current energy use as one of several solutions to the energy problem.

Unfortunately, Hofmeister’s approach seems more common in practice. Western societies’ preference for simplicity and quick action instead of careful examination makes it difficult to explore a topic from multiple perspectives before implementing a solution. This tendency was demonstrated by UT students during the West Campus parking meter issue last fall, and is apparent again in discussions surrounding tuition and graduation rates.

Affordability was the rallying cry used against parking meters in West Campus after the city proposed adding several hundred parking meters in the neighborhood last year. The discussion portrayed residents of West Campus who owned cars as victims of a greedy city intent on taxing students. Students expressed concern that paying for parking would be a difficult financial burden. However, nowhere in the dialogue stemming from the parking meter issue was it acknowledged that many students living in West Campus cannot afford to own a car at all, regardless of whether parking is free.

While the parking meter issue could have been an opportunity to discuss the mobility challenges facing cash-strapped university students, it instead focused on preserving a status quo that favors those students who can afford car ownership. Parking in West Campus may be difficult, but getting around Austin for those who cannot afford to drive is, in some cases, impossible. By focusing so narrowly on parking, the discussion failed to address the larger, and arguably more pressing, concerns of overall student mobility.

Moving forward, students should not so easily pass up opportunities to examine the deeper challenges behind attention-grabbing issues. After the publication of the report by the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates, students around campus could be heard grumbling about how the report’s recommendations would inconvenience them. And while some of the language used in the report calls into question the Task Force’s understanding of students’ perception of the issue, this should not be used as justification to reject the report outright.

The graduation rates issue is a complicated one that is closely linked to college affordability. Instead of rejecting changes to the status quo as hostile personal attacks, students should consider the issue from a perspective that goes beyond their personal convenience and individual needs. By rushing to form an opinion, students run the risk of making a decision before they have had the opportunity to fully understand the issue.

Although students’ lives are busy, and sometimes just getting homework finished before class can feel like a major accomplishment, it is in all of our best interests to make some time to open our minds and examine important issues from a perspective other than our own or other than the one which was first presented to us. Just because a way of life or academic policy has become familiar doesn’t mean that it is the only solution.

Although politics in Washington favors extreme positions and no room for compromise, this system seems to produce little more than gridlock and further polarization. As students, we would be wise to avoid this strategy when dealing with campus issues.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior