Office of Sustainability speaks for the trees—figuratively
The Lorax would have been preaching to the choir at Illinois State University. The hero of Dr. Suess’ eponymously titled children’s fable, who “speaks for the trees” and who fought in vain to stop the Once-ler’s destruction of his beloved Truffulas, may have even found a new home in the Fell Arboretum, with its thousands of trees representing 154 species. Either way, his message in support of sustainability would have definitely struck a chord with Missy Nergard.
Nergard was Illinois State’s director of sustainability until stepping down in September to take the same position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her 25 years here, she drafted the business plan creating the Office of Sustainability in 2010 and was part of a movement that began in the 1980s with the establishment of a recycling program in the residential halls. Now sustainability has become so ingrained in campus that it is even a stated objective of the University’s latest strategic plan, Educate • Connect • Elevate: Illinois State.
Nergard has ushered in projects, large and small, to make that abstract goal a reality, including helping establish a program to convert campus food waste into compost. Since 2014 the office has partnered with multiple units across campus to install sustainable picnic tables, which are made of recyclable materials and enable students to recharge their electronic devices using solar power.
And more recently, the Office of Sustainability supported the launch of Fix It Friday, a Department of Family and Consumer Sciences project in which students offer free sewing repairs to the community. Last year, Fix It Friday received the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Campus Sustainability Achievement Award.
The office’s goal is to empower students and faculty to lead from where they are, to find ways to create a more sustainable campus. “I look at how we can integrate our students into our operations and vice versa, and our faculty, because we have so much talent on campus and so much knowledge,” Nergard said.
Last August, Redbird Impact asked Nergard to look back on her time with the Office of Sustainability, what it has
accomplished, and why it exists. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do other campuses have similar offices of sustainability?
I think we were really on the cutting edge. Sustainability really started out as recycling programs, so it generally falls on the operations side; however, you’ll notice, for example, even our College of Business is a signatory to a program called PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education), which is a United Nations program, which supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Incorporating these goals into the curriculum is on par with some of the most prestigious international institutions. So we have a strong academic focus as well, and what’s really happened is that sustainability has become part of our culture.
The role of the office is to capture everything that is going on at the institution and put it under one umbrella and say, “Look, we are doing this. We’re doing really amazing things where students are graduating, understanding what these principles are, whether it’s for economic vitality or social responsibility, or environmentalism. They walk out with these skill sets, and they can understand the systems thinking and identify how the systems work on a local and global scale.”
What is the mission of the office?
Sustainability is systems thinking, and it focuses on three sets of systems: economic vitality, environmentalism, and social justice. So, we look at how those interact. It’s really taking one thing and looking at how it impacts anything that it touches.
For instance, we have students doing research on microplastics in water. We look at what those contaminants look like, and then we follow it back up through the chains of our interactions. The microscopic work that identifies a particulate of plastic that came from our clothing can help us mitigate that type of contamination of our water. So we then work with our Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and our textile division. We work with our construction management and our project management majors because even carpet fibers are highly plastic and through our constant interaction with these fibers we contaminate the water we drink and the air we breathe. This leads us to our health sciences and nursing programs where the results of contamination impact human health.
So we connect everywhere where microplastics may come from and look at how we could mitigate putting that in the environment. What are the economic impacts of that? What are the impacts to workers in jobs and economies? Then we look at changing a product or doing something different with it to eliminate or otherwise mitigate the negative consequences.
What do you consider accomplishments for the first eight years of the office?
We helped with the Innovation Consulting Community. (Katie School of Insurance and Risk Management Director) Jim Jones and (Marketing Professor) Peter Kaufman had this idea to connect our innovative students with real-world clients to develop solutions. These gentlemen and a handpicked group of faculty and community partners made it happen. It’s a successful program that is starting on its third year. Those are the type of initiatives that we’ve been involved with. It was an idea that two people grew into a program that has an impressive span of influence, and a very marked rate of growth.
The other campus initiative that is unique for ISU is a brand new Center for a Sustainable Water Future, which was started by Joan Brehm, the interim chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. That’s just kicking off and is co-chaired by an interdisciplinary team of Dr. Brehm and Dr. Noha Shawki, from the Department of Politics and Government.
So just in the last three years we’ve seen several initiatives that have really moved forward with an intentionality and speed that is somewhat uncharacteristic of large organizations. I like to think that the campus culture of sustainability helped build the momentum and support that enabled these programs to come to fruition so quickly and with such immediate success. It’s inspiring.
How can students get involved and learn more about sustainability projects?
I guest lectured in a lot of classes across the colleges. But usually what happens is the student has an idea of something they want to see on campus, and they come to us. What we really try to do is ask what their personal passions are, what their career aspirations are, and what the project idea is. And then my role was to help them make that happen so that can see it come to fruition on campus. I think the most visible example of that is through Fix It Fridays.
Last fall we had a group of student-athletes who really wanted to see more recycling at tailgating. They got a pilot program up and running, and they recruited a whole bunch of student-athletes to volunteer as ambassadors to walk through the lots and encourage patrons to recycle. They saw the need and then they made it happen.
Related Article: Innovation Consulting Community organizes students into teams who work with real-world clients.
Do you procure resources for the students?
The Student Sustainability Committee, which is a part of the Student Government Association, has $180,000 every year that they allocate for sustainability-related programs. It’s available for any faculty, staff, or students.
The students decide whether or not to award funds to the application based on a set of criteria that includes curricular benefits, span of influence, social equity, and a healthy environment. The student committee can award funds for the entire application, or they may just provide a portion of the amount applied for. So it really is a student-driven program.
There are also other community resources and partners that we can work through. The hard part for students is knowing where to start. It’s a big institution. They may have no idea what the rules and regulations are, who to contact, who in the community is going to be helpful as a partner. That’s really what we try to do.
I worked with Jan Paterson (interim director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning), which is really nice because we have a lot of the same partnerships. We’re achieving the same goals with students really doing some significant service learning when they’re taking on these projects.
How have students’ ideas and feelings about sustainability changed over the 25 years you have been at ISU?
I think I’ve seen more of a broad interest because originally sustainability was strongly aligned with environmentalism, and we have very strong environmental groups on campus. But what I now see more of is that the social justice aspect—which we’ve always had with Alternative Breaks and a lot of groups going out in the community really trying to help on some of those issues—that’s being more strongly aligned with sustainability as well.
ISU has a pretty strong history of social justice. We were some of the first signatories in the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium. Jerry Abner did that years ago out at UMC (University Marketing and Communications), so we can be assured that anytime we see a Redbird logo on something that it was sustainably sourced.
Are there any other student projects that you’ve been proud of?
In spring 2018 we had a student working on a water conservation project with the Chemistry Department. What happened was that a professor had gone and measured all of the leaking faucets in all of the labs in chemistry. There’s a calculation you can use for drips per minute in which you can figure out how many gallons you’re losing per year. We don’t necessarily have a replacement or maintenance plan for those faucets in the Science Lab Building. So the student went through and designed a preventive maintenance program. He went to the student committee and got funding. Then he worked with a chemistry lab manager and plumbing shop to get all of their faucets repaired so there’s no more drips in chemistry. They were so efficient with that program and they hadn’t used their allocated budget, so the student committee said go ahead and do biology as well. So biology got their labs upgraded as well.
Is there anything else you want to highlight?
The only thing I actually would like to highlight is that Illinois State University has a legacy of sustainability, even though it wasn’t called that at the time. We can look to John Wesley Powell and Stephen Forbes as our earliest proponents and practitioners. Those were the gentlemen that were advancing environmental sustainability at the time. I think sustainability has been ingrained in the fabric of our institution from its founding, and it’s pretty neat to be able to call back on 160 years of history and say that this is who we are.
For more information, visit the Office of Sustainability’s website, follow the office on Facebook, or contact Office of Energy Management Director Chris Homan at (309) 438-5141 or choman@IllinoisState.edu.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.