Richard Miller, the University of Connecticut’s first environmental and sustainability officer, spoke with Judy Walton at AASHE recently about his work and experiences. Rich serves on the Steering Committee of the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium and the Executive Committee of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence. Prior to joining UConn in 2002, Rich had worked as a practicing environmental and land use attorney, an environmental and energy lobbyist for a statewide association, an adjunct professor of environmental law, and a corporate environmental manager at a Fortune 500 energy company. He received his B.A. from Penn State University and J.D. from Stetson University College of Law.
JW: You recently visited Freiburg, Germany to study their sustainability efforts at both campus and community levels. What were your key takeaways for higher education institutions in North America?
RM: My first takeaway is that I’m very fortunate to work at a University that understands the importance of globalization and helps fund this kind of international travel and information exchange for professional staff. As for Freiburg, one can’t help but marvel at the mass transit system and how travel by trains, buses, and even bicycles is so inter-connected and convenient. I’m an avid cyclist and really enjoyed biking in and around Freiburg (see UConn – Freiburg Sustainability Exchange, Part 2). Since I returned home, I’ve already met with local officials about how we can collaborate in planning for a better network of bike trails to destinations off-campus. Ecotourism is a big business in Freiburg – you can hike in the Black Forest, ski in the nearby mountains, swim at one of the city’s lakes, and bike to any of those places. The city does an excellent job of promoting its natural assets and drawing residents into its parks and outdoor areas by creating interesting things to do and see. I’m going to focus more of my efforts on trying to do similar things at UConn.
Another takeaway from my visit is Freiburg’s remarkable commitment to renewable energy, especially solar power, and the way Freiburg University (Albert Ludwig University at Freiburg) has developed strong academic programs that train future leaders in order to build on this economic strength (see UConn – Freiburg Sustainability Exchange, Parts 3 & 4). There is still a window of opportunity for businesses and universities in other nations to become preeminent in clean energy technologies. Germany, the city of Freiburg and Freiburg University have not missed this opportunity by engaging in ideological debates – they’ve forged ahead to become global leaders. Since returning from my visit, I’ve put even more attention and a greater sense of urgency into working with UConn’s own sustainable energy leaders, like Provost Mun Choi and faculty associated with our Center for Clean Energy Engineering. The ultimate goals are to develop more on-campus green energy demonstration projects and establish a stronger leadership role for the University.
JW: What led to the addition of a “climate adaptation” section in U Conn’s climate action plan, and can you briefly describe that section?
RM: Shortly after our CAP was approved by our then-president in 2010, a faculty member who interviewed me for his research on climate adaptation brought the lack of an adaptation section to my attention. Of course, adaptation was not in the ACUPCC “template” for CAPs, and, like other universities, the focus of our plan was on carbon mitigation goals and strategies. When Susan Herbst became our new president in 2011, several of us at UConn began “coffee klatch” conversations about ensuring that climate change remained at the top of her agenda for the university. We came up with the idea for a week-long series of speakers and events that occurred in late-March of this year, called Climate Impact Mitigation and Adaptation (CIMA). We met with the president and her staff, and agreed that she would kick off CIMA week by reaffirming UConn’s commitment to the CAP and putting her own fingerprints on the plan by adding a Climate Adaptation Section. Once that was decided, we had about four or five months to deliver, so immediately went to work convening an inter-disciplinary task force to gather information, brainstorm ideas and create this new section.
This is important to UConn because we’re a land and sea grant, public research university in a state facing significant property, infrastructure, environmental and health threats from the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and more frequent and severe storms. Consistent with our mission, we have a duty to share our expertise and help the communities in our state better prepare for these impacts. Our new adaptation section catalogs some of our existing programs in this area and focuses on how UConn can be an even better resource for projecting climate change impacts and guiding the development of state and local strategies for managing a wide range of associated risks.
JW: What campus sustainability success(es) are you most proud of?
RM: I would say it’s the overall success of building, essentially from scratch, a strong and effective environmental and sustainability office that has been an influential catalyst and leader for many positive changes at UConn, both operational and academic. When I was hired as UConn’s first environmental officer in 2002, there were plenty of challenges to be sure, but also things happening to improve our environmental performance. However, responsibility for these activities was very dispersed across the University, with no guiding environmental policy in place and no department or person charged with oversight or coordination. We developed an environmental policy and created an organizational framework that enabled us to focus strategically on these issues, and engage and build consensus among students, faculty, staff and key stakeholders. Today, UConn has not only earned public trust and confidence in our environmental performance but also is consistently ranked among campus sustainability leaders nationally and globally. That’s a source of pride and continued motivation for me.
JW: What advice do you have for others trying to build successful, institution-wide programs?
RM: Learn all you can about your institutional strengths, as well as challenges and gaps, in order to identify opportunities to make a difference. Study successful programs and initiatives at other colleges and universities but don’t just copy them. Tailor programs to fit the unique culture and character of your campus.
Get to know the “champions and change agents” who can help you accomplish mutual sustainability objectives. In order to be most effective, sustainability professionals in higher ed must continually bridge the gap between the operational and academic sides of the university. And, in this respect, one advantage that I’ve had over most of my AASHE-member peers is that I also oversee our environmental compliance office. It’s an additional management responsibility and demands a lot of my time but our compliance office provides an important service to operational units, like our utilities and construction management staff – in turn, this strengthens working relationships that facilitate our ability to “operationalize” certain sustainability initiatives. For others who don’t have this dual responsibility, it becomes even more critical to your effectiveness that you continually communicate with staff and managers who work in all facets of the university.
JW: What strategies do you/your office recommend to engage students, faculty, staff, and administrators in sustainability initiatives?
RM: At UConn, our sustainability office is usually simultaneously working on multiple initiatives, each of which targets a slightly different group. For example, we’re getting ready for our annual inter-dorm energy and water conservation competition, which we call EcoMadness. That event has proven to be a good way to reach mostly first and second-year students who live in the dorms. On the other hand, a lot of our Climate Action Plan strategies involve energy efficiency activities that are staff-driven, like building retro-commissioning and lighting retrofits. We’re also working with faculty to install more demonstration projects on-campus that advance their research and create “living laboratories” to raise environmental awareness and reduce our ecological footprint. Our role might be helping them with funding, siting or outreach. At the same time, we work with Athletics on football and basketball “Green GameDays,” where EcoHusky student volunteers help fans recycle in the tailgate areas and inside the stadium or arena. Of necessity, our workload reflects the wide range of activities and diversity of interests at a major university.
JW: How is U Conn tracking progress toward sustainability?
RM: We’ve used various surveys to measure our progress and find out where we stand compared to our peers. This past year, for the first time, we used the AASHE STARS format in order to participate in the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools survey. We also network and share information with colleagues at AASHE conferences and programs, as well as at Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium events.
JW: What are your biggest challenges?
RM: Trying to grow the sustainability office and create more full-time staff positions in the face of the recession and tight budgets. Sustainability offices in higher ed tend to function in both academic and operational realms but we’re not considered a primary function of either realm. It’s tough to compete for limited resources against much larger departments or core functions, like public safety or IT on the operational side or faculty hires on the academic side. And to some extent, we’re the victims of our own success. We’ve done pretty well with a lean organization and our success has become an argument against the need for more full-time staff.
JW: What would you like to accomplish next at U Conn?
RM: In addition to the goals I’ve set based on my Freiburg visit (see above), our intern staff will review progress with action items described in our Climate Action Plan (CAP). Certain initiatives, like retro-commissioning of dozens of the university’s more energy-intensive buildings, are ongoing. We’ll determine whether UConn is ready to move ahead with any additional carbon mitigation or environmental literacy strategies listed in our CAP. I’ve also been working to develop campus sustainability strategies with Dr. Gene Likens, a distinguished visiting faculty member, who was recently appointed by our president as her environmental advisor. Dr. Likens and I have been meeting with
select faculty, staff and students and will prepare our recommendations for President Herbst later this year. Never a dull moment!
JW: How are you addressing the social justice aspect of sustainability in your work?
RM: At UConn, I’m a member of the President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility. We analyze and promote fair labor practices and standards, especially as they apply to the University’s purchasing and vendor/contractor selection process. Some of our campus sustainability initiatives, while focused on environmental objectives, also meet the triple bottom line of sustainability, including both economic benefit and social responsibility. For example, our move out program, which we call “Give-and-Go,” collects clothing, furniture, appliances and non-perishable food items from students when they check out of their campus housing at the end of the academic year. We divert these items from the waste stream by donating them to local charities for their use or reuse.
JW: Where do you see the biggest room for growth and impact in the higher education sustainability field?
RM: Without a doubt, we can make the biggest difference through action to address climate change, whether it’s assessing and projecting its impact, driving carbon reduction through clean energy research and demonstration projects, or helping state and local governments adapt to and manage its effects.
There is a leadership void on climate action, particularly at the federal level, and higher education is well-poised to fill it. We have the brainpower and expertise to solve problems that will ultimately require the development of advanced, innovative technologies. We also have the opportunity to educate and inspire future leaders, so that they can get past the ideological and political differences that have distracted us for so many years, and work together on science-based solutions that are economically and environmentally sound.
JW: How do you spend your free time?
RM: I really enjoy road biking. During my sustainability exchange visit to Freiburg, I took a few long rides on the scenic trails in that part of Germany. Now I’m inspired to plan some multiple-day bike trips next summer. I also like hiking, tennis, gardening, cross-country skiing, walking my dog… really almost anything outdoors. I also like to be involved in my community. I chair a land use board in my hometown and get to influence things like open space conservation, wild and scenic river designation and use of low impact design in local development projects.