Sustainability saves money, energy on Minnesota campuses


Minnesota’s colleges and universities are proving that reducing energy waste and consumption is saving money. As a result, the hot new job on campus is sustainability manager.

The University of Minnesota-Morris, Gustavus Adolphus College and Macalester College have have all hired sustainability managers, while schools like the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota have consolidated their sustainability activities under one roof.

This is part of a national trend. According to a 2007 survey by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 90 percent of sustainability managers have been hired since 1997, and 74 percent since 2002. Both full-time and part-time positions now number in the hundreds nationwide.

Minnesota is in the forefront of campus energy waste reduction. Sixteen Minnesota schools have signed onto a plan by the American Colleges and Universities and Presidents’ Climate Commitment, an initiative to minimize climate change that suggests schools create carbon-neutral campus action plans.

Winona State University has become a national example of how to cut energy usage. Last spring, the university slashed its heating and electricity use by 27 percent for one month, earning them first place in the “National Campus Energy Challenge.”

A campus sustainability manager has a number of duties, including overseeing campus-wide activities. Instead of spending time gathering data and reacting to problems, efficient use of a manager’s time can help campuses develop new programs to help the environment and cut waste. Some AASHE members say their salaries come from the savings from sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability managers spend a majority of time working with students or in the community. In addition to developing curricula and teaching courses, some managers support student activities. Managers conduct public information campaigns to inform students, alumni, faculty, staff and the community about the college’s efforts in energy efficiency, waste reduction, green building, and healthy eating.

Suzanne Savanick Hansen, the Sustainability Coordinator at Macalester College, notes that the first conference on sustainability in Minnesota was in 1998. Now sustainability managers have formed their own association. As the field grows, managers are sharing knowledge about how to reach out to students, parents, alumni, and area communities.

Businesses are joining colleges in their drive for sustainability. While consumer demand and profitability are the motives, many businesses have hired sustainability managers to create long-term sustainability plans and implement them.

This is only the iceberg’s tip. Economic pressure and responsible living values are driving interest in sustainability projects. Schools may be early leaders in the drive toward sustainability, but they are not alone. Academia and the private sector are increasingly realizing that as costs skyrocket, keeping operating budgets down allows schools and businesses to invest in people instead of light bulbs. It is an approach that thinks about the future as well as the present, and keeps Minnesota moving forward.

If Winona State University can lead the nation, why can’t the rest of Minnesota follow suit?