Q&A with Christian Wells, Office of Sustainability

In 2008, USF President Judy Genshaft signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment at the first Going Green Expo. In the summer of 2009, the Office of Sustainability was created “to manage USF’s climate impact assessment and reporting, as well as to serve as the single point of contact for sustainability programs and activities for the USF system.” Dr. Wells became the first Director of Sustainability in August and is currently working on USF’s first Climate Action Plan, to be revealed in May.

A new Office, a new position, and you’re the inaugural Director. What types of challenges did that bring?

” The challenges were the same as what made the whole process exciting. The fact that there was nothing, and there was no precedent so I could design things the way I wanted. I could come up with my own website, designed my own way, I could come up with my own logo and a motto, and my own programs. Huge challenges to overcome, but that’s what made it attractive and exciting. I thought that it would be a big challenge to try to get people excited about sustainability but I found that wasn’t the case at all. There are already so many people on campus that wanted to see this happen for some time so they are willing to donate their time and volunteer hours and I need a bigger staff to handle all the people who want to give. It’s nice, a problem of riches. “

The office has been in place for about 6 months now. How’s it going?

“Much quicker than I thought it would go. It’s been really amazing, all the people who have come out of the woodwork to say how passionate they are about sustainability and environmental literacy, reduce, reuse, recycle, stuff like that. I’ve gotten a lot of help and support from, not just faculty colleagues but staff as well. There are a tremendous number of staff members at the university who are dedicated to this and of course, students organized in student groups. So, we’ve gotten an incredible amount accomplished.”

What are some of the bigger accomplishments?

“Some of the bigger things we’ve been doing…the big Going Green Expo and the Sustainability Conference. That was a huge success, it brought in thousands of people and a lot of people from the community showed up. It was really a great sign, very healthy. Right now, we are working on the Climate Action Plan. This is an obligation that we have because President Genshaft signed the American College and Presidents Commitment, so it obligated the university to find out how are we messing with the environment and what might we do to change our behaviors, technology and resource use in the future. The big push right now is developing that plan.”

Biggest success so far?

“Putting the office together from scratch. This was an empty room not too long ago. There were sustainability efforts on campus but nothing was coordinated. One of the big happy accomplishments was our website, getting a one-stop shop place for all activities and initiatives.”

Biggest challenge so far?

“Recycling. Recycling is a perennial challenge because its so visible. Everybody is always looking for the recycling bin and what people don’t realize is that USF is a big complicated place. There’s the Tampa campus and you would think that all the buildings are administered centrally, but it’s a very decentralized university. Some of the buildings are administered by USF proper, the Physical Plant, but there are many other buildings like the Marshall Center, and the bookstore, and the SunDome, and all student housing, that are called Auxiliary Units. So they are separate, their recycling and waste management is all separate and not administered by USF proper. So, if you want to see recycling at the SunDome, you have to deal directly with the administration of the SunDome.  It’s all patchwork and so trying to get people together in the same room at the same time, has been a huge challenge. We are working on it slowly- the Marshall Center is now recycling and we’ve been in talks with the Bookstore and the Preschool for Creative Learning. We are just tackling them one at a time.”

One of the goals outlined in the executive summary for this office was to embed sustainable aspects into classes. Can you talk a little bit about that?

“To try to help, we had a workshop at the Sustainable Conference. We also initiated a grant funding program for faculty; we offer them money if they want to take time off and figure out ways to build sustainability into their courses. Then, we’ve been working with Academic Affairs and the Provost Office to create a new school for Global Sustainability with a new set of curricula that are focused on sustainability. The school opens with an inaugural Masters degree program in global sustainability that focuses on water. Water management, water quality, those sorts of issues. And then eventually that graduate program will be expanded to encompass other concentrations.”

Nationally, how many schools have programs like that?

“They are becoming more common. Many schools have a certificate program or undergrad majors in environmental sustainability, but very few have a more holistic type of program and none, except USF now, has a program in global sustainability. But we’re seeing it become more common. There’s a lot more demand as you might imagine, with the Obama recovery money and stimulus act that has provided billions for green sector job growth. So now there is an incredible demand at the University level for training.”

I’ve looked at a few other universities, like Florida and Florida State, and their sustainability programs seemed to focus on the campus. USF seems to take more of a community approach. Why is this?

“USF is different from those schools in that we are much larger in enrollment and we are a large metropolitan university. We are so large, USF is like a city itself, but we are very integrated into Tampa. Because we are so integrated and we have such a huge economic impact on the area, I think its 3.5 billion dollars, huge impact, anything we do necessarily impacts the city and anything the city does impacts us. It’s really a synergistic relationship. From the outset, this office was designed to be very integrated in the local area. I meet with people from the city council, city planning commission and the Mayors’ task force in sustainability to sync up our efforts and plans to make sure we are working in the same direction.”

Links (PDFs): USF Sustainability Initiative Report, USF Executive Summary of Sustainability Report

If you want to check out more information, donate, or get involved, click here.

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One response to “Q&A with Christian Wells, Office of Sustainability

  1. Pingback: Local univeristy, Global solutions « Sustain-a-what?

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