University’s first sustainability director will lead efforts to catch up with peer institutions

With campus sustainability work expanding in many directions, newly appointed Ilsa Flanagan will develop a program to incorporate sustainability into its academic pursuits.

By Nora Sorena Casey

Ilsa Flanagan began her duties as the University’s sustainability director on Monday, serving in a newly created post comparable to those at Stanford and Harvard.

With campus sustainability work expanding in many directions, Flanagan will aim to guide campus efforts to maximize results. She will also develop a program for the school to incorporate sustainability into its academic pursuits.

“One of my first goals is to determine whether the University has a widely accepted and understood definition of sustainability,” Flanagan said in an e-mail interview. “I think where the opportunities lie are in developing university policies to institutionalize the commitment to sustainability, developing a larger vision for what we want to see happen here over the long term, establishing some benchmarks to measure our success, and developing messages and materials to communicate this work.”

Flanagan has worked in sustainability for 10 years, serving as the director of sustainability development at Dutch bank ABN AMRO and as senior vice president for LaSalle Bank.

“The opportunity to help establish a sustainability initiative at a large institution with such a significant history and reputation is very exciting,” Flanagan said. “My experience has been that sustainability programs are particular to and shaped by the institutions in which they live.”

With this in mind, Flanagan hopes to get a feel for the U of C. She will work closely with Sustainability Project Manager Eric Heineman, Associate Vice President and University Architect Steven Wiesenthal, and the Sustainability Council, a campus group of students, staff, and faculty that has run events like the Battle of the Bulbs and that has promoted energy efficiency and sustainable purchasing across campus dining and coffee shops.

As part of its 2008 report released in June, the Sustainability Council compared the U of C to universities that are leading in their sustainability efforts, including Harvard and Stanford. While Harvard has 20 Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design (LEED) construction projects, Chicago has two pending LEED projects. Another difference was that both schools had sustainability directors.

“I think our strength is our student activism, academics, research, and the work of the Sustainability Council,” Heineman said. “I think it is exciting to welcome the new director and expand the office of sustainability at the University of Chicago.”

Wiesenthal said part of Flanagan’s work would be promoting more LEED–certified projects at the University, which means meeting a set of international standards for building sustainability.

At LaSalle, Flanagan said she led the bank to commit to making all corporate buildings LEED–certified. She then used that momentum to encourage the company to reduce the carbon footprint of the Chicago Marathon, which it ran. “I essentially put together a corporate sustainability program there from scratch, with a healthy bit of skepticism from staff and in an environment not necessarily conducive to large-scale change or forward thinking,” she said.

She hopes successful sustainability projects combined with the support of the Sustainability Council will allow the University to make great strides in developing its own programs.

“Without question, this is a wonderful opportunity. There are very few sustainability positions on the market with such broad responsibilities, internal support, and forward momentum—especially in the Midwest.”