What I Learned as a University Sustainability Coordinator

By Lucas Kellett

Department of Anthropology, University of Maine at Farmington


My journey into university sustainability was in many ways haphazard if not fortuitous, yet it is one of the most interesting professional and personal experiences I have ever had. As an undergraduate in the 1990s I studied Anthropology and Environmental Studies, when conservation and pollution were the buzzwords, not sustainability. My entrée into the emerging profession of sustainability began in the late 2000s when on a whim I volunteered to be a green representative at the Supervisor’s Office of the Cibola National Forest in Albuquerque, NM. While working as an archaeologist I also tried to convince career federal employees that the office should not only have recycling bins, but also expand their number; turn off lights to save electricity; and consider solar tubes for office lighting. After lengthy campaigning, I was surprised to gain approval for the installation of a solar trash compactor at the entrance to the office before my departure. 

In 2011, I left New Mexico and came to Farmington, Maine after my wife accepted a faculty position at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF). It was only in my second year that the retirement of the existing campus sustainability coordinator offered a new opportunity. Should I apply even though I had limited experience and no formal education in sustainability? I did apply and was surprised when UMF offered me the job. I was thrilled, but also nervous, to embark into an unknown world of university sustainability in a community and state I barely knew. This part-time staff position would later be combined with a half-time faculty position in the Department of Anthropology. My tenure as UMF’s sustainability coordinator between 2012 and 2019 was a tremendous experience. Some days surprised me, other days frustrated me, but most days I was humbled by the complex task in front of me and was inspired to do the best work possible to further UMF’s sustainability mission. Below are five important lessons that I learned during my time as a university sustainability coordinator.

Learn by doing

When I was hired, I had no formal training in how to be a sustainability coordinator.  As I would soon find out, the first generation of coordinators often lacked formal training and upon entering their new university jobs, had to take quick stock and strategize for each unique institution of higher education. As a child of the 1980s, I was raised in the northern suburbs of Chicago on canned and frozen food and had almost no direct experience with gardening, composting, wood heat, or food insecurity – the very things that dominated my tenure in sustainability at UMF. In comparison, the majority of my first-generation student employees in sustainability, many from small rural towns, were far more knowledgeable in such practices. With their help and guidance from other university sustainability coordinators in the state, I was able to learn new skills, including how to run a university composting operation. It was an evolving and iterative process which changed operational models three times in three years. 

In 2015, I was approached by my student employees in sustainability with a proposal to open a cashless thrift store and food pantry on campus. As with composting, I had no experience or expertise on how to do any of this. In all cases, I had to do my homework, ask a lot of questions and then experiment by simply doing. We made mistakes and had to change course, but my role as sustainability coordinator reminded me that we can never know everything or be fully prepared. I learned that often the best approach to making gains in sustainability is to learn by doing.

Sustainability is about people (and the environment too)

When I was an undergraduate college student, I was taught within a frame of environmentalism that would often exclude people. My experience as a sustainability coordinator has offered the critical reminder that people matter and forming long-lasting personal and professional relationships with partners on and off campus is the key to a successful university sustainability program. In my position, I became reliant on a diverse suite of stakeholders and partners on campus (UMF students, Director of Dining Services, Director of Facilities Management, VP of Finance, and University President) and off campus (Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Town of Farmington, United Way, waste and recycling contractors, local businesses, faith based organizations, and farmers). I also came to rely on the input and advice from my network of fellow university sustainability coordinators (Green Campus Consortium [GCC]) across the state of Maine, whom I could depend on for sound advice and knowledge on numerous and often complex issues.

These partnerships were not novel or frivolous, but rather absolutely essential for successfully fulfilling and expanding the sustainability mission on and off campus. Week in and week out during the academic year, UMF depends on these committed partners for its success. UMF’s Sustainable Campus Coalition (SCC), a coalition of student, faculty, staff, and community members, has played a key role in converging stakeholders to have open discussions on a range of sustainability issues. Student input in particular, has been and continues to be a critical ingredient for success in any sustainability initiative on campus. For example, I learned that changing protocols in recycling did not always translate to success in sustainability. While I saw more recycling bins as the obvious solution to poor recycling rates, my students reminded me that undergraduate students can be uninformed, lazy or even hostile when it comes to recycling. We had to make recycling simpler and easier through more education and improved signage. What I realized was that entering the minds of students and understanding them was essential to create “nudges” (not “shoves”) towards changing human behavior and improving daily practices in sustainability.

Sometimes you can do more with less

Working in sustainability at a small, economically-strapped public university in rural Maine has laid bare the scant resources available to make big leaps in sustainability on campuses like ours. This became most apparent during discussions at quarterly meetings with university sustainability coordinators from across the state. While energizing on the one hand, these meetings could also be discouraging since they often revealed a vast green divide between wealthy private colleges and taxpayer funded public colleges in Maine. For example, in one meeting, a public institution shared their struggle for the approval of a single, half-time sustainability coordinator, while another private institution shared the news that they had just installed the state’s largest ground-mounted solar array and declared themselves carbon neutral. In addition to economic disparities, coordinators working in the University Maine System also had to contend with the numerous bureaucratic and logistical hurdles that come with public university systems.

As sustainability coordinator at a small public university with limited funds, I had an important choice. Do I fret and lament UMF’s constrained ability to do big things or do I make the best of the current situation? As you might guess, I decided to do the latter and to my surprise, I found that even with relatively little in terms of staffing and funding, UMF has been able to make impressive gains in sustainability. How? Through non-monetary means in the form of “people power” and strategically offering input when big decisions were being made on campus. For example, for many years, the campus has hosted the annual Maine Fiddlehead Festival, which is planned by the SCC and other volunteers on a minimal budget supported through local fundraising. The decision to build a new wood biomass heat plant for campus was in part the result of SCC members being invited to the Building and Energy Committee meetings and arguing for heating campus with wood biomass rather than natural gas. Finally, the small size of UMF has often allowed for easier horizontal and vertical communication within its small administrative structure. This has translated to faster and more frequent meetings with those who have their hands on the sustainability levers. The result is that UMF has launched new sustainability projects somewhat quickly while staying on track with its Climate Action Plan.

Do not underestimate students

From my seven years as sustainability coordinator and even now as full-time faculty, I still stand in awe of the abilities of these undergraduate students. As coordinator, I helped keep the “ship afloat” and solve problems, but nearly all of the major successes in sustainability are the result of dedicated and passionate students. UMF’s combined campus thrift store and food pantry (The Thrifty Beaver Co-op), a future campus greenhouse, and LEED certified Education building were all student ideas and initiatives. Students are the heart and soul (and paid labor) of our campus compost operation, transporting 3,000 lbs. of food waste from the UMF dining hall to the compost pile every week. Students continue to work tirelessly to organize round table discussions, offer campus film screenings, and numerous other events. They have also helped foster a culture of environmental activism by organizing marches for climate action, and, most recently, a campaign to keep the UMF’s sustainability coordinator position (which thankfully still exists!). On numerous occasions, I have been discouraged about a recent budget, enrollment, or infrastructure meeting, but then I meet with my sustainability students and I transform from a state of pessimism to optimism through their intoxicating enthusiasm. Even now, living in a pandemic when sustainability seems to be far from the top of people’s minds, these amazing students tirelessly continue to promote a campus culture that is dedicated to making the planet more sustainable and just.

How I became a better faculty member

With a combined sustainability coordinator and part-time faculty position, I often felt like I could never dedicate enough time and energy to each side of the position to be mutually successful. Despite this challenge, I also learned valuable lessons in sustainability which made me a better mentor and teacher. As a supervisor of ten student employees in sustainability, I realized that taking time to connect with each one of them was essential to build that relationship. In a similar way, I have dedicated more time to listening and connecting with student advisees in the Anthropology program. In both cases, the students struggle and have anxieties about the future. I have realized that part of being a coordinator and faculty member is finding time to connect. My time as sustainability coordinator has also reminded me of the value of personal and professional relationships on campus and as a faculty member. I continue to strive to be a collaborative and dependable colleague. Finally, sustainability and anthropology are both complex fields with diverse intersections which offer questions and problems that are never black and white, but instead shades of gray. My time as coordinator has reminded me of the importance of understanding issues from multiple perspectives, especially those with which you may not agree or are not familiar. My time as sustainability coordinator and now faculty member also highlights the overlapping and common mission to understand how diverse human cultures across time and space are deeply intertwined with our physical and biological planet. It reminds me that the local sustainability efforts of a small university campus are indeed connected and important to our rapidly changing world.