Bridging the University's Environmental Community: Campus Sustainability Coordinators

In the wake of colleges and universities creating green initiatives, one position that has become more common in recent years is that of the sustainability coordinator. As the title suggests, campus sustainability coordinators manage and coordinate a college’s sustainability initiatives, or as Brandon Trelstad, sustainability coordinator at Oregon State University, said, “The person, mostly from an environmental aspect, who keeps the communication lines flowing.” Even so, the job of sustainability coordinator can often entail other duties, reflective of coordinators’ varying academic backgrounds. As Hunt Brown, director of Sustainability at Wright State University in Dayton, OH, put it, “We don’t want to just teach about sustainability in a class; we want to show ways of working to achieve it. To lead by example.”

Of the 62 respondents to the AASHE’s (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability) 2008 survey on higher education sustainability officer positions and salaries, “90 percent of their positions were created within the last 10 years, and 74 percent were created with the last five years.” The survey notes positions created as far back as 1973, but the majority of the positions have been created in the recent years. Of the coordinators I interviewed, Hunt Brown’s position was only created recently, while Barbara Kviz, environmental coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University, began her position in 2001, a time where her title was “cutting edge.” Trelstad started his position in November 2005, reflecting the trend of positions being created mostly in the last decade.

There is a wide variance in the types tasks that are part of the job of sustainability coordinator. The top five survey responses were overall sustainability coordination, work with students, energy efficiency and management, recycling and waste reduction, and community outreach. Other coordinator jobs included transportation, teaching, green dining, and green purchasing. “My current position as director of Sustainability is half time,” explained Brown, “the other half being devoted to teaching environmental subjects in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.” Wright State’s initiatives not only include reducing the University’s impact on the environment but also “seeking to ensure social justice and economic opportunity.” At Carnegie Mellon, Kviz works to communicate the University’s initiatives to the student body and acts as a connector between different environmental efforts and programs on campus, including leading an environmental program on Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day. She described it as being the “university memory” in order to keep from “stalling or going around in circles.” Trelstad stressed communication to the student body and community as well. His work includes not only coordinating initiatives but also writing grants, working with students, doing sustainability audits, and even Website development along with his own personal work, which includes projects centered on climate.

While not only are the coordinators filling multiple roles, they often are in different departments and reporting to different people. While Brown teaches in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, his position of director of Sustainability is in the Office of the Provost. Kviz is part of Facilities Management Services, and Trelstad is also in Oregon State’s Facilities Services Department. The AASHE survey listed other departments including the provost, president/chancellor, environmental health and safety, and even student government.

Our campus sustainability coordinators also come from varying backgrounds. Forty of those who responded to the AASHE survey held an advanced degree. Of those 40, two had a Ph.D., three had an M.B.A., 29 had one M.A., and five had two Master’s degrees. Sixteen of the respondents did not hold an advanced degree. Kviz’s background is in agriculture education and plant and soil science. She holds a K-12 teaching certification and an M.A. in Public Management. She began as a contract manager in Facilities Management Services before taking on the job of Environmental Coordinator. Brown entered his position with a B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology, and M.A. in Zoology, and a J.D. Before this, he worked as an environmental biologist and an environmental lawyer. Trelstad has spent 10 years, counting his time as an undergraduate, at Oregon State. He came to his position with a degree in Environmental Policy.

Despite varying backgrounds, departments, and duties, campus sustainability coordinators do have the common goal of helping their university or college achieve sustainability. Brown described the position as emphasizing “the importance given to this issue and the role that universities seek to play as models for both the university community and the community at large.” While coordinators and the committees they work with seek to set the pace for green practices, often the campus community “takes ownership and widens the circle,” stated Kviz. The surprise of people becoming environmental all on their own underscores the work of the sustainability coordinator.