Kathleen Ng, Environmental Officer at McGill University, talks to AASHE about the sustainability success at McGill following its 10-year anniversary of the environmental policy, and her own experiences working on sustainability at McGill. Ng completed her BSc in Physiology with a minor in Management from McGill, and went on to pursue a Graduate Diploma in Management at McGill. Ng also completed an International Master’s in Practicing Management, studying in the UK, India, China, and Brazil. In addition to serving as Environmental Officer for McGill, Ng is currently pursuing an MA in Practicing Management at Lancaster University.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of McGill’s environmental policy. How has this policy helped spur the passing of subsequent policies, including the sustainability policy and paper-use policy?
The environmental policy demonstrated the University’s commitment to the protection of the environment at the time, and my position was created to help with its implementation. As the portfolio evolved, we began to identify further opportunities for the University to mitigate its impact, which included the paper use policy (to reduce unnecessary paper consumption and encourage more enlightened paper purchasing practices), and the sustainability policy (which extends beyond the scope of the environmental policy).
What was the primary impetus for creating the environmental policy? Who was involved in the process of drafting and approving the policy?
From what I understand, the environmental policy served to fill a vacuum created when the University signed the Talloires and Halifax Declarations, but the perception at the time was that there was little action documented towards achievements of those goals. The Environmental Working Group, a multi-stakeholder working group of staff, students and faculty, helped draft the policy, which was submitted across campus for consultation before getting final approval by the McGill Senate.
Has the environmental policy been analyzed over the years to identify any areas or points that could be amended based on changes in the University (e.g., infrastructural, demographic)?
The Environmental Working Group became known as the Sub-Committee on Environment (a working group of the Senate Committee on Physical Development) after the approval of the policy. This group worked to identify areas and initiatives for potential action by the University. Fortunately, the environmental policy had been designed with a long-term focus, avoiding specifics in order to be as broad-reaching as possible. Instead of amendments, the paper-use policy and the sustainability policy were drafted separately since they were not already explicit in the original environmental policy.
How have the Sustainability Office and other departments at the university informed and educated the campus community over the years about the environmental policy?
By virtue of its composition, the multi-stakeholder Sub-Committee on Environment assisted in helping stakeholder groups stay connected over the years. For instance, the annual Rethink conference is a forum to which staff, students and faculty are invited to learn about ongoing campus initiatives and to bring forth additional ideas that could be implemented. These discussions allowed for the implementation of the Farmer’s Market, the Sustainability Office, and the Sustainability Policy. This is in addition to the usual media outreach (websites, promotional material, Facebook page, a listserv, working with Public Affairs, etc.) and activities (leadership workshops with the First Year Office, new student, faculty and staff orientations, and other events).
In general, what are the primary strategies you/your office use(s) to reach out to and engage students, faculty, and staff in sustainability initiatives?
While all the strategies mentioned earlier have been useful in helping us reach out to the community, I believe the real catalyst in engaging students, faculty and staff was the establishment of the Sustainability Projects Fund. The Fund was established to foster a culture of sustainability on campus, and is jointly funded by students and the administration dollar for dollar. With CA$800,000 a year for three years available already, this resource greatly empowers the community to act on their ideas to make our campus more sustainable.
How do you keep university leadership involved in and up-to-date on sustainability initiatives?
There are formal and informal channels. Examples of the former include the preparation of reports on request or on a proactive basis — from briefing notes for the Principal, to reports for the Senate Committee on Physical Development, to a presentation to Senate about where we are with regards to policy implementation. We prepare responses to requests from ratings and rankings agencies such as Canada’s Greenest Employers, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, and the Conférence des Recteurs et des Principaux des Universités du Québec (the Association of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities). Information is also shared informally, through social events and communications networks.
How did you get started in campus sustainability, and what campus sustainability success are you most proud of?
I had been contemplating leaving my job in Human Resources for a change of scenery to teach English in Japan, when one of the managers working for my supervisor, the Executive Director of Human Resources, told me of a great opportunity. He had an opening in his office and thought I would be perfect for the job. After an interview with him, his staff, the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Environment as well as a couple of student representatives on the Committee, I was hired, and here I still am!
I am very proud of the leadership of this University with regards to supporting sustainability efforts, and the dedication of our students and staff who are contributing to campus sustainability. Over the years, we have strengthened the links between the “islands of sustainability” across different units and stakeholder groups, and it is especially rewarding when their combined efforts result in a visible success, such as the initiatives stated above. The development of this community is our strength: my goal is for the Sustainability Office to be obsolete, at which point sustainability would be ingrained in the culture on campus to the extent that an external catalyst is no longer necessary.
In what area(s) do you see the biggest room for growth in the campus sustainability field?
One of the areas I feel is least understood is the outcome of campus sustainability efforts, which can be highly contextualized. Most campuses begin with the low-hanging fruit usually in operations (utilities and energy management) before moving further into the aspects relating to education, research, and the social dimensions of sustainability.
How are you incorporating the social dimensions of sustainability into your work?
Previously, we had focused our attention on the social dimensions of sustainability in operations-related activities: for example, purchasing from a local NGO that provided job skills to immigrant and abused women, or sending IT equipment to an ISO14001-certified NGO that sought to re-integrate dropout and at-risk youths into society. Currently, we are also strengthening our relationships with units affiliated with the social dimensions of sustainability – such as the Social Equity and Diversity Education office, the First People’s House, and Student Services. We are looking for further opportunities for engagement and action. This included funding Aboriginal Awareness Week in September 2011 through the Sustainable Projects Fund.
How are you tracking progress toward sustainability?
In addition to the aforementioned reports, we participated in the development of and pilot of AASHE’s STARS program, having become a charter participant in 2009. While there are aspects of STARS that could be improved, I recommended that McGill participate since, among other reasons, STARS was the most comprehensive, transparent and organic system available with widespread brand recognition.
Is there a particular insight (learning experience or “ah-ha” moment) you have had working on campus sustainability?
I think that there is a tendency for campus sustainability practitioners to take on too much, just because we are so passionate about what we do. This in itself is not sustainable (I speak from experience, having suffered a 3-month-long burnout), and I emphasize that the importance of delegation, working collaboratively rather than on our own islands of sustainability so that efforts could be better sustained in the long term. Refl’action – reflection and action!
Are you involved in efforts to advance sustainability in curriculum? How?
Due to the number of projects already on my plate, my colleague, Lilith Wyatt, has really taken charge of this dossier. Her efforts range from working with student interns for applied student research, to working to include campus sustainability efforts in the library database, to working with Teaching and Learning Services towards developing potential programs to advance sustainability in the curriculum.
How do you spend your free time?
When I’m not working, volunteering at the YMCA as a personal trainer, or working towards my latest degree, I try to be a bonne vivante and enjoy life as much as possible – hiking, biking, sampling local cuisine, scuba diving, travelling, seeing friends and family, walking the dog, la dolce vita!