Learning from the CoB Tree Tussle

Faced with “eleventh-hour” frustration about the removal of hundred-year-old trees for the new College of Business building, MSU’s leaders have taken a somewhat dismissive tone.

The attitude may stem in part from a sense that the trees do not outweigh the value of the new $20 million building, but it has more to do with a feeling that the concerns now voiced by some students, faculty and staff were already addressed last spring through a deliberately open process.

The university organized a series of public forums in February and March to discuss the building’s design and determine location options. President Cruzado wrote about the process in a Feb. 27 Monday Morning Memo, and MSU News published the final location in April.

At the time, this paper wrote an editorial lauding the administration’s inclusive planning efforts and calling upon students to join in the process. At one session, we noted, only three students were present — a CoB student, a student senator and an Exponent reporter.

A lack of effort by the university to seek community input does not seem to be the issue. But the absence of community input (even among CoB students) and subsequent community blowback suggests the process did not effectively achieve its goals. The situation provides lessons for how the university could better generate such involvement.

Public participation does not always come as neatly as administrators would like. In this case, it wasn’t until the stakes were in the ground and ribbons tied to trees that some at MSU realized a decision regarding the new College of Business building was worth their time. But those stakes must be clear to community members before they will feel compelled to join the decision-making process.

If the university is serious about inclusive decision-making, it must be able to accommodate inevitable “eleventh-hour” concerns as well as find ways to facilitate hard discussions earlier in the process.

We have every indication that the university has thoroughly considered all options for the trees in the Douglas Fir grove north of Wilson Hall. And our sense from MSU environmental services manager E.J. Hook is that great effort and care has been taken to relocate and save as many trees as possible. The seven 106-year-old trees slated for removal next summer could live another hundred years, Hook said, but are too large and too dense to relocate.

By moving the building north 100 feet, however, the grove could be spared. But that would require the removal of some parking spaces in the adjacent E lot — an already overcrowded parking sector on campus.

The choice, in somewhat simplified but straightforward terms, is between a grove of trees or coveted parking spaces. Now that’s a forum we would have liked to attend.

Unfortunately, neither Cruzado’s memo nor MSU News mentioned the trees. Our editorial mentioned it only parenthetically. Student senator Erica McKay, however, responded to an Exponent writer’s opinion column with a letter detailing the tree discussion. Her leadership on the issue was commendable, and our campus could have benefited from more of it.

As MSU’s leaders plan future opportunities for participatory decision-making, they should take a more active approach that anticipates points of contention and frames the discussion around them. That’s a difficult and courageous task, one upon which our university, including the Exponent, has room to improve.