On Apr. 11 at approximately 9 a.m., a work crew sprayed the Confederate Jasmine vine on the overpass connecting the residential and academic sides of campus, with an at-the-time unidentified chemical in an incident lasting about 15 to 20 minutes. Students quickly took notice and spread word on the student email forum, noting an iridescent chemical puddle that allegedly remained for several days, and a strong stench that lingered for weeks in the area. Students expressed concern for their own health when traveling across the overpass and suspicion that the college authorized the destruction of this plant, intentional or not. However, in an email announcement sent by Vice President of Finance & Administration Chris Kinsley on Apr. 18, it became clear that this act was unauthorized by the college and cost an estimated thousands of dollars in damage. In a follow-up interview with the Catalyst, Kinsley was able to further confirm that the incident was caught on film by the overpass’s security cameras, that the jasmine was in fact sprayed with Roundup and that the work crew who did so was a third party, unaffiliated with the college.
Kinsley has elected not to reveal the name of this third party, as New College has been assured that they will cooperate but have yet to come to a binding legal agreement. Kinsley suggested that such an agreement could potentially involve the third party fully reimbursing the college in exchange for nondisclosure.
“What appears to have happened is that a crew doing work for a contractor on behalf of some government—we don’t know who, but we know it’s not New College—was doing brush clearing at the side of the road, and somehow mistook our pedestrian overpass for some type of right-of-way that needed to be cleared,” Kinsley said. “That’s what police have video footage of.”
Additionally, Kinsley was able to confirm that they were able to rule out Sarasota County as the responsible entity for this unauthorized herbicide usage.
“We’ve been able to identify a vendor,” Kinsley continued. “The vendor has said they’ll cooperate with us if we pull together an estimate of the cost to replace the plants and they’ll file it with their insurance company. They told us that the product sprayed was Roundup, which we suspected but we didn’t know.”
New College has had a tense relationship with Roundup use on campus over the past year, sparking student protests and coming with various legal complications and worker safety issues. While Roundup use has been halted for the time being—and, presumably, as long as students remain vigilant about the topic—some students were initially suspicious that New College was responsible for this incident.
“My goal is to fix the problem and less about casting the blame, but we’ll make sure that whatever we do, it is clear from documents [that] this was not the college,” Kinsley said. “It was somebody else. So if we do a settlement, we’ll have our lawyer draft something so it’s legal and official. Because I know that there’s a suspicion that we did this, that somehow we made a mistake, that it was on us. And I know that that’s not the case.”
Responding to concerns about student safety in the area where the Roundup was recently sprayed, owner of local environmental consultation business Stocking Savvy and alum Sean Patton (‘11) weighed in, saying that the herbicide is not likely “going to be of particular harm to students.”
“It’s mostly an issue when it’s being sprayed in extremely large amounts or routinely, because some plants get resistance to it,” Patton later continued. “I don’t think there’s any risk of harm to students, but we should always use herbicides as a last resort, mostly because plants will grow to resist it, because some plants can only be killed with herbicides.”
“Roundup is one of the most commonly misused herbicides on the market, particularly because it is available to the public,” Stocking Savvy staff member and alum Kendall Southworth (‘21) later elaborated. “Herbicides are often not just one chemical, but are mixed with surfactants, for example, to alter the way they perform.”
Kinsley, Patton and Southworth all emphasized that this incident was very likely an honest mistake and not the fault of any of the landscaping crew involved.
“At that time the email [the Apr. 18 announcement] was sent out, the employer was still sort of in denial,” Kinsley said. “The photographic evidence was persuasive. When they saw the footage, the vendor was like, ‘Okay, that clearly was not just somebody who happened to be wearing a t-shirt with my company name. They were all wearing the same t-shirt. They were wearing yellow vests, it was clearly a work crew. Whether they got bad orders or they misinterpreted the orders, they didn’t look like they were trying to wantonly destroy things. They looked like laborers who just unfortunately misinterpreted some directions. I feel kind of sorry for them, it’s not great work to be spraying Roundup in that quantity.”
“In my experience, miscommunication between labor crews and those who hire them is an all-too-common conflict that arises in land management,” Southworth added. “New is lucky that they have the information they need to understand and repair the situation, as many folks on the other end of these accidents often don’t have the resources to resolve the conflict or repair the damage—let alone know who to talk to.”
It is currently unclear how much money it cost to originally have the jasmine installed or how much these reimbursements might be, but Patton estimates that the jasmine is about 20 to 30 years old.
“The jasmine in particular was one of your standard vining jasmine,” Patton said. “It’s not native to the U.S. Honestly, its loss isn’t that big of a deal. They are not that useful for local wildlife, they’re mostly just an ornamental and it offers a little bit more shade on the overpass, but it’s not like that jasmine had any particular significance. It wasn’t a named plant, it wasn’t particularly ancient.”
Although the jasmine on the overpass was for strictly aesthetic purposes, many community members expressed frustration at its death and attachment to the plant.
“The jasmine, as well as the other species that have made their way to the overpass has been present for as long as I can remember—certainly since I was on my first campus tour back in 2017,” Southworth said. “I feel incredibly attached to the land New College is built on and has developed. When I was a student, I channeled my love into building the Edible Plant Library, which includes poems and stories from students related to their love for the edible plants on campus. The page is still up on the website, and is a testament to the long and devoted relationship between students and their environment.”
“I know that since I’ve been here, I’ve been told [that] this has only been in the last few years—that the vegetation has really started to thrive and the vines have grown out more, that it’s really looking robust with a lot of rain,” Kinsley said. “It’s personally frustrating that it was starting to look really good and now, this happens.”
However, while action is being taken at the administrative and legal level, students are also rising to the occasion. Council of Green Affairs (CGA) Zero Waste Coordinator and third-year Nick Beck has drafted a proposal to be brought to the May 18 Landscape Committee meeting, which includes suggestions that the soil in the affected area be tested and potential replacement plants from local native nurseries.
“The situation that has occurred with Overpass Jasmine is truly unfortunate, especially as there are actors to blame who are not within the institution,” Beck’s proposal states. “Nonetheless, there is clear student concern for the state of the overpass beds and a desire for rehabilitation of the flower beds and replacement of the deceased plants.”
The proposal is organized into three phases, which includes testing the soil beyond a standardized Ph test, reconditioning the flower beds replacing the jasmine with one of the following native plants: Carolina Yellow Jessamine, Coral Honeysuckle and Maypop Passionvine, or Passionflower as it is more commonly known.
“I believe this three step plan is actionable and achievable to completion before students return to campus in the fall,” the proposal concludes. “This situation, if handled properly, can demonstrate that the landscape committee hears student voices and takes action to address their concerns.”
Beck informed the Catalyst during an interview that he tested the soil himself on May 4, about an hour after it had rained and with a cheap, over-the-counter Ph soil tester. The soil in the elevated flower bed registered with a Ph level of 8.
“It’s not terrible [or] super alarming if your soil is that, if you’re trying to grow plants for that,” Beck said. “But jasmine kind of likes a Ph between 6.5 and 7. I did also just do a very brief test, so I don’t know how good it’s going to be.”
“Roundup contains water soluble ingredients and, when in contact with soil, will eventually break down into nitrogen and carbon dioxide—this can take up to 174 days, and is hugely variable based on dosage and ecosystem dynamics,” Southworth commented. “The upcoming rains will do much to repair damage to the soil health.”
The cost required to test or replace the soil is currently unclear, but Patton advises the college against investing in any soil tests.
“Soil testing would be useless because most herbicides that you spray don’t bind to the soil,” Patton said. “The soil is likely going to be a little drier because its root hairs are dead, but most soil tests are going to be a few hundred dollars, some are thousands of dollars. It would be cheaper to literally just take out that chunk of soil, replace the soil entirely and then plant new plants than it would be to test it.”
Soil testing aside, something all parties are in agreement with is that this presents the opportunity to replace the jasmine with a native vine. Beck explained that, out of the options included in his proposal, the Yellow Jessamine and the Maypop Passionvine would need some maintenance in the form of basic irrigation or occasional watering, but that both vines produce sweet-smelling flowers, and the latter, passionfruit. The Coral Honeysuckle, meanwhile, is both a native pollinator plant and edible.
“We’re thinking that we want to consider something different [to replace the jasmine],” Kinsley said. “I’m open-minded to it, and want to talk to the experts about, ‘Do you think it can survive, can it thrive?’ Jasmine, that’s great, but it’s not the most exciting thing. I think you’ll find me and the team open to consider.”
Both Patton and Southworth especially advocate for the inclusion of more native plants on campus, and cite their abundance of benefits—as well as the dangers of planting non-native species, which run the risk of becoming invasive.
“Our native vines are continually being displaced and endangered in their natural habitats by non-native vines, particularly those introduced from the ornamental trade,” Southworth said.
“Plant natives—you’ll get more birds, you’ll get more butterflies, you generally don’t have to pay as much to maintain them, you can pick from thousands of different native plants,” Patton added. “So if you think New College is ‘brilliantly unique,’ plant your natives. Everything should have a purpose. Ornamental is not a purpose. Like, you should have a really good reason to plant something that’s not native there, and I honestly don’t think that pure aesthetic value is enough. That’s actually the reason that most species are invasive.”
Much of the current next steps proposed—both in terms of navigating legal consequences and reimbursement with this third party entity and moves to test soil and replace the jasmine—are all still preliminary. However, Kinsley has promised to provide updates as the situation develops. In the meantime, it appears that students can rest assured that this attack on the overpass jasmine was both accidental and not done through New College channels.
“Everyone initially suspected that it was the Physical Plant, kind of because there’s a lot of herbicide and pesticide usage on campus,” Beck said. “Depending on who you ask, some people would say a lot more than usual. But the school always has its weird twists, and so the fact that it wasn’t the school was funny because that’s what we were all expecting. But I think this is a good opportunity for the school to actually communicate with the people that they have all these quirky contracts with, and really get something done that it’s pretty clear the students want. And it’s just something that’s been here for a while, people have a lot of sentimental value to it, and it should come back.”