The U gets a gold star for its sustainability efforts

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The University of Utah recently received a STARS Gold rating for its all-encompassing efforts to promote sustainability—in campus operations, research and in the curriculum. Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, talks with Kerry Case, the U’s chief sustainability officer, about what the rating means, how we are approaching sustainability on campus and ways faculty and students are making an impact in environmental issues. Plus: Get ready for Earth Day! Recorded on March 16, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.

 


SVP Dan Reed: Hi there. Earlier this year, the University of Utah received a STARS Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. This is a big deal. It's the result of over a decade of work on an all-encompassing sustainability program here at the University of Utah.

We've made some really fundamental changes in the way we construct and operate new buildings and in the way we manage our energy and water consumption on campus. We've also supported interdisciplinary research focused on sustainability and addressed sustainability more broadly in our educational offerings because we believe taking a holistic 360 perspective on sustainability is critical, not only to who we are but to achieving our goals.

The U has also joined other institutions as a member of the University Climate Change Coalition and is committed to working together to address climate change as part of that coalition.

We know sustainability matters to our campus community—that's our students, our faculty, and our staff, to the state, our community, and to the world. This is really about what we can do to build a better future.

I'm Dan Reed. I'm the senior vice president for Academic Affairs here at the University of Utah, and I'm delighted to be hosting today this edition of the U Rising podcast. My guest today is Kerry Case, the chief sustainability officer at the University of Utah.

Today, we'll talk a bit about the STARS recognition and also about the actions we've taken to address sustainability in our operations, our research and in our curriculum. So, welcome Kerry.

Kerry Case: Thank you so much, SVP Reed. I'm excited to be here today and be talking with you about sustainability.

SVP Dan Reed: Well, I'm really looking forward to it. There are exciting things happening on our campus. So, let's jump right in and I'll pose a few questions and let's have a conversation about sustainability. Kerry, you joined the University of Utah about a year ago as chief sustainability officer. Tell us a little bit about your background and what your role is here at tehe U.

Kerry Case: Yeah, thanks Dan, I'm happy to. So, yeah, as you mentioned, I started just over a year ago, right before everything shifted. I had two weeks in the office before we entered this new reality that we're in right now. And I came to the U with nearly 20 years of experience working on sustainability in Utah higher education. I sometimes jokingly say I am on the slowest tour of Utah higher ed ever, right? And by the time I'm in my nineties, maybe I'll make it to the schools down south.

But having worked on sustainability in higher ed for nearly 20 years really makes me an old timer in what's a relatively new profession. And in a lot of ways, my career and my experience actually mimic the changing landscape of sustainability in higher every day. When I started at Utah State University it was really all about energy efficiency and the way that saving energy could save you money and really good business practices, right?

And then I spent most of my career at Westminster College where I started and directed their environmental center, and really the focus was on environment and sustainability and environment were essentially synonymous, and that's kind of where the field of sustainability has been for over a decade. And still to this day, when I tell people I'm a chief sustainability officer, they typically talk to me about environmental things. And so, I was really excited to join the U last March because not only does it represent an important shift in my own professional career, I think it also represents a shift in the field of sustainability and our understanding.

You mentioned this more holistic approach to sustainability that is not just about operations and facilities and solar panels. It is still about that, and that's very important, but also looks at our curriculum, our research agenda, the way we are engaging students and that more holistic sort of scope of sustainability also mirrors a more inclusive definition of sustainability.

So, I want to share the way we define sustainability at the University of Utah, which is the integrated pursuit of social equity, environmental integrity and economic security for both current and future generations. So, I'm really excited to be here, to focus on that more holistic definition. It isn't just environmental, it's all of these things coming together to make a sustainable future.

So, what does a chief sustainability officer do with that, right? I'm really responsible for providing high level administrative leadership or strategic planning and implementation of institutional sustainability efforts here at the U. This is a One U effort, right? So, it includes our partners in U Health. I also oversee the work of the Sustainability Office—the Global Change and Sustainability Center is the research arm of that office—and our efforts to incorporate sustainability into the academic curriculum.

SVP Reed: Well, despite you joining us just as the pandemic struck, we're really glad that you're here and you have made a real difference already in the first year that you've been a part of the University of Utah community. You touched a little bit on what the Sustainability Office does and the places that you engage campus. I was wondering if you could just say a bit more maybe about the Sustainability Office itself and some of the initiatives that it leads.

Kerry Case: Yeah, I would be happy to. So, the Sustainability Office started in 2007 as part of Facilities. Its creation was a result of grassroots efforts by students and faculty—sustainability mattered to our campus community then, and I'm really pleased to see how much it still matters today.

Anecdotally, I was able to attend the first open forum for the presidential search and was pleased that I was not the only voice speaking up on behalf of sustainability as part of that. It's clear that sustainability matters to our students, faculty and staff, just like it did in 2007, but there've been some shifts with the office. As you know, the Sustainability Office now reports through Academic Affairs and includes the GCSE as the research arm. And really the point of the Sustainability Office is to lead efforts in campus-wide sustainability education, research and engagement. It really acts as a hub or an epicenter for students, faculty, and staff who are doing sustainability work. I would encourage anybody who is interested in learning more about the office and our programs to visit the website, which is sustainability.utah.edu.

And I think it's worth mentioning that there are three areas where we're really focused right now. One of those is centering equity in health in our sustainability work. They're critical parts of sustainability that for a long time didn't receive the attention that they need. Also, as you mentioned, climate change is a critical part of what we do. So, a focus on climate and particularly on climate resilience—asking questions about how are we as a university poised to address the impacts climate change will have and is having on our campus, on our institution and our operations.

And then lastly, as we start looking over the horizon and envisioning what it might be like to emerge from this pandemic. We're really renewing our focus on expanding opportunities for students through additional internships, more research opportunities, virtual and, fingers crossed hopefully, some in-person events next year and a whole other suite of things that really bring our students into this conversation about sustainability.

SVP Reed: For those of you listening remotely, GCSE is the Global Change and Sustainability Center on the University of Utah campus. It engages in interdisciplinary activities around the environment. And so with that little clarification, let me turn to something I mentioned earlier, and that's the Gold STARS rating. Ever since we've been children, we know that getting a gold star is a really terrific thing. So, tell us a little bit about its significance and what that really measures and represents.

Kerry Case: Yeah, so obviously I think this is a really big deal. I may be a little biased, but I think it's a huge accomplishment for the university. So, STARS—which stands for the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Ratings System—it is the metric that measures sustainability in higher education in North America. This is how all institutions benchmark their sustainability efforts.

It has five big categories that it looks at: academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. And across those five categories, it measures dozens of indicators. We looked at everything from how many sustainability courses we were offering to how much energy and water we use per square foot as a campus, to how we're investing our endowment, to what we do to support students from underrepresented groups. It really represents that more holistic definition of sustainability that we've been talking about and achieving a gold rating for the first time is significant both internally and externally.

Externally it helps us keep up with our peer institutions and helps us earn our cred as a sustainability leader, if you will. Internally, I think first and foremost, this represents more than a decade of work by dozens of people, and that work is sometimes slow and sometimes not really flashy. And so, it's really nice to get a recognition like this that allows us to pause and look back and reflect and actually see how far we've come and see how much has been accomplished in this space and celebrate it. I would say internally, it also helps us identify where we want to go, right? And areas for future improvement. We didn't get 100%, there are always opportunities to improve and this highlights certain areas where we may put some extra attention. And then lastly, I think one of the things that STARS does, both internally and externally, is boost our transparency.

We're doing great work around sustainability and making great progress. But one of the things I've heard from student leaders, as I've been here the past year, is a call for better transparency about what that means and how we are doing and what progress we are making. And so, STARS does just that because it's accessible to anyone who wants to look online.

I will note that if there's a student who's not ready to totally nerd out on BTUs per square foot and some of the wonky stuff that's in STARS, we are creating a sustainability dashboard on the Sustainability Office site that will look at some high-level metrics for people who want to see that without digging all the way into STARS. So, it's a big deal. And I really, I didn't do the work to get us here, I just pushed it over the finish line and it's a great thing to come into.

SVP Reed: Well, I think you're being modest in terms of your work. You brought all of the pieces together to help us submit our response for the STARS evaluation. And as you noted, it's a holistic metric. It's not just how we're doing in terms of energy efficiency with our facilities or what doing on the educational front. But it's really trying to look at the intersection of all of those things, which I think is probably a hallmark of what you've been trying to do. And what the campus has been trying to do is what we talk about in a One U kind of partnership that brings education, research, academic and health affairs together with Facilities and thinking about these things in an integrated way. And I just mentioned Facilities, so let me shift to that.

Obviously, as you mentioned at the outset, our Facilities Management team plays a big role in our sustainability efforts. So maybe talk a little bit about some of the things that the university has done with the support of our trustees to shift what we do in Facilities to conserve energy and be more environmentally friendly.

Kerry Case: Absolutely. There has been extraordinary work happening on the Facilities side of the institution, and we see that represented in this STARS Gold accomplishment. And one of the things personally that I've been so excited to find is clear passion and support for sustainability at all levels of our Facilities team—planning, design, and construction. There are so many people working on this and doing really good work, and we could not have made the progress that earned us STARS or the progress we're making toward our climate commitment without their expertise, without their passion, without their leadership in that space.

A couple of specifics to note: the university recently achieved its Better Buildings Challenge goal of increasing our building energy efficiency by 25%. That's pretty significant. We did this by both building more efficient new buildings, but also by improving the energy efficiency of our old buildings. And Chris Benson, who's our associate director for Sustainability and Energy likes to tell me that we're using about the same amount of energy now as we were in 2011, despite significant growth both in terms of buildings and in terms of our campus population. And this has been achieved by a whole host of upgrades to lighting, control systems, different building systems as well. And the Facilities Management team has a really good path forward to continue driving down our building energy use over the coming decade.

And I would note that these energy savings have real impacts in terms of valley air quality and in terms of our greenhouse gas emissions. They are helping us meet our carbon neutrality goals, and we have already reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% thanks to their work.

Plus, I think it's also worth noting this isn't energy savings, but Facilities has really led the way in shifting the source of our energy. And so right now, 50% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and we just signed a big new solar deal that will bring us up to 71% of our electricity when the project is complete at the end of 2022. So, these are huge accomplishments on the Facilities side, and I'm so glad to have them as partners working on this.

SVP Reed: Thanks, Kerry. So that contribution to how we think about designing buildings on campus, as well as our partnerships for energy sources, are part of that.

On the campus as well, on the human side, of course, we've talked a little bit about education. Let's talk a little bit about the research enterprise. As one of the things that's a distinguishing characteristic of the U is that it is a flagship research university and we can draw on intellectual expertise to address core issues in sustainability. So, as you think about some of those projects and some of the faculty that are leading those, how do you see them contributing to our sustainability goals?

Kerry Case: So today we're talking about STARS. I think one of the things to note is that part of the way we achieved gold were the huge gains we made in terms of the number of faculty doing sustainability research. We increased from 40% of departments doing sustainability research when we last did STARS in 2017 up to 65% this last round. And so I think what that shows us is sustainability research is being contributed by our faculty all across our institution, right? And so it's not coming out of just one or two departments—it's really widespread. And I think that is a huge strength when we think about sustainability problems as requiring multifaceted approaches, right? These are not just environmental problems. They are not just social problems. They are not just economic problems. And so, we need the research contributions of multiple faculty to contribute to these solutions, and we're seeing that happen.

Take, for example, air quality in our valley. We have multiple researchers doing work on air quality, including looking at the disproportionate impact of air quality on low-income communities and people of color right here in the Salt Lake Valley. So again, pulling from multiple disciplines, multiple areas of expertise, to find a common solution.

And if we had 10 hours, I could really dig into all the host of ways that our faculty are doing sustainability research. I think that would be a pretty long podcast! So, I would say a couple of things. The Global Change and Sustainability Center alone has 150 faculty affiliates from 30 departments, spanning 12 colleges. And the good news is they also have an inventory of all the sustainability researchers at the institution.

So, I would recommend people check that out. It's at inventory.environment.utah.edu. And you can search by topic, by area, by department, it's a great resource. And I will say this has been one of the best parts for me about arriving at the U is having all of these researchers who are not just experts in their field, but also eager to contribute to our university work and solutions, both for our institution and our community. It's been really fun getting to know many of them.

SVP Reed: Oh, I completely agree with you. It's fascinating to see the interplay of engineers measuring environmental issues to people in social equity and policy and law, looking at regulatory issues, to people in our health system understanding how environmental issues affect human health and lifespan. It's that interplay that's really the defining attribute to me of this holistic approach that really is a hallmark of what an integrated university can do.

So, we've talked about infrastructure, we've talked a little bit about research, we've talked about partnerships. Let's talk a little bit about students because as you mentioned earlier, climate change and sustainability are important issues, rightly so, for our students. How do you view the U as addressing their interest in these issues and connecting them to the other thing that's really great about a research university, which is that education takes place not just in the classroom, but it takes place in the laboratory and out in the field?

Kerry Case: Absolutely. Getting students involved in sustainability, all aspects of sustainability is a top priority for the Sustainability Office, for the Global Change and Sustainability Center, and for me personally. We're trying to make a place for them in everything we do. And I'll give you one great example. We are currently conducting the university's first Climate Resilience Assessment, looking at the impacts of climate change on our institution and how we measure those, how we track those, how we prepare for those. So, it probably would have been easier to just bring in a consultant or do it with a couple of faculty but instead we, last fall, engaged eight different classes across multiple departments with hundreds of students in helping us with this work. We were able to gather the work that they did and create a subcommittee that also included student representatives to take it to the next step and then bring on a team of both graduate and undergraduate researchers to help us really begin measuring what are the potential impacts of climate change on our institution? How do we think about this? How do we move forward?

And so, I think you, we often think about engaging students in sustainability work on campus, again on an operational side, right? Which is important, there's great work happening. And our Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, also known as SCIF, funds a bunch of student projects to get involved and do research or transform our physical campus.

I think we also have to recognize that there's great learning that can happen as we involve students in sustainability planning, in sustainability assessment, in all this work that we're doing. And the Sustainability Office is, as I mentioned earlier, really making this a priority to continue engaging students. And knowing that 75% of our departments offer at least one sustainability course, we know we're giving them some information and some understanding about sustainability on the academic side, expanding our research opportunities, but also trying to make a seat for them on our committees and the places where we make decisions about moving sustainability forward. Because like you said, climate change, sustainability, are critical to our students, and I hear it all the time.

SVP Reed: Kerry, we're speaking here in March, and as we all know Earth Day is coming up in April. And I know the U has a wide variety of events that are scheduled to intersect with Earth Day, I was wondering maybe if you could just give people a few examples and tell them how they might be able to get more information.

Kerry Case: Yes, there's lots going on in April for Earth Day, and we actually have an Earth Week at the University of Utah, which begins April 12. The Sustainability Office does this in partnership with ASAU and there're tons of virtual events happening that week, including I am doing an open forum about sustainability with students. So, I'd encourage them to come ask questions and hear what we're working on. Also, a bunch of faculty have put together a great event, Artvism4Earth. So, I would encourage people to watch at The U or visit the Sustainability Office's website to learn more about everything going on that month.

SVP Reed: Well, thank you, Kerry. It's been a pleasure to speak with Kerry Case, the University of Utah's chief sustainability officer. It's been my privilege to be a guest host of today's U Rising podcast. I'm Dan Reed, the senior vice president for Academic Affairs here at the U.

As you've heard there, extraordinary activities taking place across campus in research, in education and infrastructure to build a brighter future for our students and for our society, as we think about a sustainable future. Thank you for joining us. And we look forward to having you participate in a future podcast. Thank you, Kerry, and have a great day everyone.

Kerry Case: Thank you.