Polite Persistence Works: Kate Kressmann-Kehoe's Endorsement Story

On May 8, 2019, President Gerard Rooney of St. John Fisher College became the 53rd signer of the Higher Education Carbon Pricing Endorsement Initiative. The initiative, led by Our Climate and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, gives leaders of higher education institutions the opportunity to voice their support for carbon pricing. The campaign to receive President Rooney’s endorsement took nearly two years. We spoke with Kate Kressman-Kehoe, a volunteer and higher ed ally at the CCL-NY Rochester chapter near St. John Fisher College, to learn how they succeeded. 

We generally recommend that groups seek grassroots support before reaching out to their college president for an endorsement. How did you get grassroots support at St. John Fisher? 

Our strategy was to get the support of faculty, students, and student groups for carbon pricing first. With the faculty, Dr. Kathleen Donovan, an assistant professor of political science and sponsor for St. John Fisher’s Political Action Club, came onboard in January of 2018 after we met with her over coffee to discuss our plans. A month later, we gave a presentation to Dr. Donovan and other faculty members in the political science and sustainability departments.

Next, we recruited students. In March, we presented to a class in the sustainability department, which several members of the Political Action Club attended. Some of them decided to help us pursue the endorsement. We met with them several times to train them on the language of the endorsement and help them create a presentation. At first, the students would only present the introduction and key ask, then turned over the explanation of Carbon Fee & Dividend to myself and my fellow CCL volunteers. As time went on, the students could give the entire presentation without our help. We would attend all of their presentations as back-up, helping to answer difficult questions from audience members. By the end of the semester, the students had received their first student org endorsement. 

The students resumed presentations after the summer break. By November, they had received endorsements from the Student Government Association, Residential Council, Commuter Council, and Student Activities Board. They had also accumulated a list of hundreds of individual student signatures. With our immense faculty and student support, we were ready to reach out to the president.

When was your first meeting with President Rooney? How did it go?

Our first meeting with President Rooney was on December 12, 2018. The CFO, Provost, Facilities Manager, and Sustainability Manager were also in attendance. The students did a wonderful job with their presentation, but their audience had many concerns about the costs of endorsing. President Rooney requested models to demonstrate how signing on to the endorsement would impact the college. He made it very clear to us that he would not be making a decision at this time.

We spent the rest of the month researching answers to President Rooney’s questions. Though we were unable to find the specific models he requested, the students sent much useful information and evidence of support for similar endorsements his way. We received no response from him during January or February of 2019, so we began to send requests for a follow up meeting at the beginning of March. The students decided that structuring their next meeting as a discussion rather than a presentation would be more beneficial, and they began to prepare their talking points: how the college could insulate itself from the costs of a carbon fee and why supporting such legislation would be less costly than doing nothing.

How did your next meeting go? What did it take to get him to sign the endorsement?

Our second meeting with President Rooney, CFO, Provost, Facilities Manager, and Sustainability Manager was on April 11, 2019. We had an extensive discussion, which was guided by the students’ talking points and prepared research. We emphasized the positive PR signing on to the endorsement would bring the college and provided handouts prepared by CCL volunteers. In the end, President Rooney requested that we call previous signers of the endorsement and ask them to provide their reasons for signing the endorsement before meeting with him again. We did just that, and recorded testimonials from four of them. We also conducted research on internal carbon pricing and collected 300 more student signatures. By the time we had our third meeting on May 8, there was no way President Rooney could refuse to sign on.

How long did it take for President Rooney to respond to your requests to meet? What were your meetings with him like?

President Rooney took several weeks to respond to each of our meeting requests. He was very pleasant and courteous during our meetings. Despite his many concerns about cost, he was highly complimentary of the students’ presentations and research.

Who was able to offer you the most support in receiving this endorsement?

Dr. Donovan provided us with so much support, guidance, and motivation throughout our campaign. Her expertise as a political science professor was crucial to our success.

How did you communicate this endorsement to the campus and wider community?

We collaborated with the campus communications officer on a press release, which we then posted on social media. You can read our news article here.

What challenges did you experience? What resources were the most helpful in addressing these challenges?

It was difficult to stay positive while also conveying a sense of urgency about the issue of climate change. Since we spent such a long time working on this campaign and had several moments where we felt we were being ignored by the administration, it was also difficult to stay polite and patient. It took 18 months and over 30 meetings between faculty, students, student organizations, and the administration for us to achieve our goals.

The resources and support from CCL Higher Education were very helpful to us throughout our campaign, and we drew a lot of our research from secondnature.org.

What advice do you have for future student advocates in pursuing an endorsement?

Prepare for a long and arduous process. Make sure to learn your presentation and practice by giving it to key constituencies, like student organizations. Conduct lots of tabling to increase student support for your campaign. Ask volunteers from your local CCL chapter to help you and seek support from faculty members who specialize in economics or political science. Additionally, you should consider asking your president right away what it would take to get their endorsement. Some presidents may sign upon your first meeting with them as a result of your careful consideration and research.

What else would you like to share about your experience with this campaign?

Polite persistence WORKS. Even when it is hard to remain patient, remember that your attitude and dedication to your goal will play a large role in your success. I also want to say that concerns about cost are legitimate. While having people who work in facilities and finance at your school part of the conversation will make it more difficult for your president to agree to sign-on, it may lead to more immediate operational changes and lowered institutional emissions as a result. 

Want to pursue an endorsement from your college or university president? Please visit citizensclimatehighered.org/endorsements for more information on the Higher Education Carbon Pricing Endorsement Initiative.