Do Colleges Need Green Czars?

As institutions create sustainability coordinator positions, the people in them consider their evolving roles.
April 15, 2008

At a recent gathering in College Park, Md., for the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference, business officers joined campus planners and the latest subgroup to make its presence felt: campus sustainability coordinators.

Five years earlier, those coordinators would have had little to no representation at such an event. But as colleges commit to reducing their carbon footprints, a growing number are introducing or redefining a staff position to organize the efforts.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, estimates that there are as many as 150 college sustainability officers, with more being hired every week. A 2005 survey from an AASHE predecessor identified 36 people with titles similar to "sustainability or environmental coordinators," and Dautremont-Smith said it's doubtful that more than 50 positions existed back then.

His group's 2008 survey shows that of the 62 respondents, 90 percent said their positions were created within the last 10 years and 74 percent were created in the last five. That's not to say that colleges have been without employees who think about campus greening. But unlike someone in charge of, say, building projects, sustainability coordinators have a more singular focus.

Lisa McNeilly, sustainability director at the University of California at Berkeley, became the first to fill the institution's new post in January. Berkeley has long had people who, as part of their daily routines, focus on environmental issues. But with so much happening on that front, McNeilly said, campus leaders decided they needed to have one person who knows about all sustainability projects.

“If you really value this, there's something to be said for having someone thinking of it every working minute, as opposed to being part of what they do," she said.

The Case for a Coordinator

At the Maryland conference, Sonia Marcus, Ohio University's sustainability coordinator, led a session called "Why Your Campus Needs an Office of Sustainability.” Her argument: While various groups can push through some of their greening efforts on their own, they will struggle with coordination and credibility without a central office.

Or, as Jacqueline Johnson, chancellor of the University of Minnesota-Morris, whose campus has such an office, puts it: "An office with a sign on the door gives the issue visibility and legitimacy. It's more than just a symbolic presence."

Larry Penley, president of Colorado State University, a proponent of colleges not only making green pledges but also developing solutions to climate change, said he decided earlier this academic year that he could no longer do without a sustainability guru.

"It came to a point when it was all getting too complex not to have someone at the forefront dealing with these issues," he said.

Penley created a position called special assistant to the president for energy and the environment, and charged his adviser with coordinating Colorado State's operational efficiency plan, environmental enterprise program and educational efforts. The adviser also corresponds with faculty and other administrators through a sustainability committee that formed a year ago.

Interviews with a handful of coordinators across the country revealed that while colleges are frequently using the same title for these positions, the job descriptions differ.

Julie Rosenbach, environmental coordinator at Bates College, said she appreciates the fact that as the first person to fill the position full time, she's setting precedent. Much of her time is spent working with students and coordinating with an existing sustainability committee (on which she serves) of faculty, staff and students that reviews and makes recommendations on building projects and other greening efforts.

Many colleges have similar committees that predate the hiring of sustainability coordinators. Mary Jensen, coordinator of sustainability programs at Keene State College, said it's important that the new hires quickly figure out how to best use the panel. The committees, she added, should be a clearinghouse for information on building projects, recycling programs and the like, and their members should help set the agenda for the coordinators.

"One person can only see so much of what’s happening on one campus," she said.

Then there's the question of where sustainability coordinators fit in a college's organizational chart. The AASHE survey shows that nearly a third of the positions (the greatest proportion of any answer listed) are housed under facilities. More than half of those surveyed said they report to two or more people on campus. In some cases, the report notes, joint reporting is seen a way to bridge the gap between the academic and operational sectors.

Marcus, the Ohio coordinator, is a proponent of putting the office under facilities. (She reports to the head of that unit.)

"A physical operation of campus has to be your base," she said. "There's no question in my mind that energy efficiency in the physical plant is the first task of coordinators. These are people who know your campus well."

Her concern is that while coordinators who report directly to the provost or president sit in on important meetings and attend fancy dinners, they can lose sight of the nuts-and-bolts side of campus.

Still, McNeilly, the Berkeley coordinator, who reports to the vice chancellor of administration and attends regular meetings with central administrators, and said she's fine with her arrangement. While energy efficiency issues have occupied much of her time in the early stages, she said she'll be glad to have the ears of top administrators when it comes to issues not tied so closely to operations.

Right For Everyone?

When new jobs become hot at colleges -- think "total quality management" hires of a decade ago -- there's the potential for backlash. An argument can be made that facilities managers and sustainability committees have done just fine working together over the years, so is the sustainability coordinator position really needed?

Johnson, the Minnesota-Morris chancellor, said she understands the concern about adding a new layer of bureaucracy. The danger, she said, is that when someone is named sustainability coordinator, other offices on campus that previously played a role in greening efforts will be less inclined to stay involved.

Jennifer Andrews, campus program manager at Clean Air-Cool Planet, an organization that aims to help colleges reduce their carbon emissions, said her group hasn't worked with institutions that have decided categorically that they don’t now or won’t ever need a sustainability position.

But Andrews said she knows of a number of colleges that aren't ready to take that step, either because of funding constraints, timing or competing priorities. Even colleges with sustainability coordinators, she added in an e-mail, "realize that it is a mistake to try to make sustainability one person or office’s job -- but that you likely still need a person or office to coordinate and make connections."

Dautremont-Smith said that while there might have been a debate about the necessity of having a coordinator several years ago, many colleges are past that point now. Marcus said it's just a matter of whether the campus can support the position.

"If you went up to a vice president of administration and said, 'How about I give you a sustainability coordinator,' they'll say, 'Great,'" Marcus said. "No one is actively opposed to the idea, but it's just a matter of whether it's a practical solution for your campus at the time."

Her general rule: At least one of the following groups -- mid-level managers, high-level administrators, faculty or students -- needs to strongly support creating such a position, or the coordinator will likely run into trouble pushing projects forward.

Colleges, Marcus added, need to get over the idea that it's a major investment in resources to create a position. Coordinator salaries, while rising in some cases, remain clustered around $60,000 a year, according to the AASHE survey. The vast majority of positions are full time, and most are funded through a college's general fund.

Marcus began working part time as a graduate student with a focus on social change and environmental studies. She said many people are willing to take the job for limited money at first for the love of the work.

And it's often a slow start when coordinators begin. Marcus said on her first day on the job she was planning ways to revamp a campus walking trail. "I thought, 'I'll finally be able to overhaul what's there.' I haven't done it to this day."


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