Sustainability committee takes new approach to its work

As it completes its fourth year of advisory service, the University Sustainability Committee (USC) has refined its charge and assembled a subcommittee structure to help its 20-plus members tackle the work. Five subcommittees will focus on different categories in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's STARS (sustainability tracking, assessment and rating system). Since 2013, Iowa State has maintained a gold rating, second only to platinum in the four-tiered system that regularly raises its metrics.

Because it assesses "all corners of campus" -- academics (curriculum and research), operations, planning and administration, and engagement (on campus and in the community) -- director of sustainability and committee vice chair Merry Rankin called STARS "a relevant and very representative measure of campus sustainability." Universities not ready to pursue a STARS rating still use its framework to assess their progress on sustainability efforts, she noted.

The five subcommittees will explore:

  • Information collecting: Sustainability-related courses
  • Information collecting: Sustainability-related research
  • Campus operations
  • Campus messaging: Processes and strategies
  • Best practices: STARS platinum-level achievements at other universities

Other university achievements in sustainability*

*Outside the work of the USC

Their work will supplement Rankin's information gathering for the next STARS submission in 2025. Involving more people and promoting awareness of the process should result in a more accurate, more complete data set for the STARS submission, said new USC chair Ted Heindel, Bergles Professor of Thermal Science and University Professor in mechanical engineering.

"We think our faculty, staff and students are doing relevant work that isn't being recognized, whether they don't know we're looking or they're not sure if their work checks the box," Heindel said. "Our subcommittees will need to find ways to reach all parts of campus."

Professor of geological and atmospheric sciences Bill Gutowski, who remains on the committee, led the group since it formed in spring 2020. Heindel and Gutowski worked with President Wendy Wintersteen over the summer to broaden the committee charge beyond its initial focus on energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy. The committee serves in an advisory capacity to Wintersteen.

STARS is the goalpost

Gutowski noted STARS "is the goalpost in front of us right now," though it's not the endgame.

"The real issue is being sustainable, making progress as a university and being a positive contributor to our community, to the state. STARS is an excellent way to measure what we're doing," he said.

As part of their work, the subcommittees also will look for cost-saving or low-cost actions that improve campus sustainability more generally. For example, ISU Dining removing trays from the dining centers several years ago greatly cut down on campus food waste, Heindel said.

The newly appointed subcommittee chairs will meet for the first time Nov. 3 to launch their work for the year.

Heindel acknowledged a very broad -- even differing -- understanding of sustainability among members of the university community -- and that's OK.

"Our committee can't do everything in that broad realm. We're trying to focus our efforts in some subsets where we can make a difference," he said. "The work of these subcommittees shouldn't dissuade anyone at Iowa State from sustainable actions in other areas. We all can impact sustainability in our own way."

Members of the campus community who want to pass along information to the committee may email it to Heindel,

University Sustainability Committee: members

  • Ted Heindel, chair, mechanical engineering
  • Merry Rankin, vice chair, office of sustainability
  • Bill Gutowski, past chair, geological and atmospheric sciences
  • Mitch Amundson, Ames National Laboratory
  • Maithilee (Mai) Bahirat, undergraduate, environmental sciences
  • Rachel Eike, apparel, events and hospitality management
  • Don Fortmann, Ames National Laboratory
  • Virginia Hanson, agricultural education and studies
  • Kristine Heflin, Memorial Union
  • Pol Herrmann, management
  • Mark Kruse, utility services
  • Ruth MacDonald, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences administration
  • Sara McMillan, agricultural and biosystems engineering
  • Haylie Moore, undergraduate, global resource systems
  • Karen Rodekamp, ISU Dining
  • Daniela Sanchez-Gutierrez, graduate student, chemical and biological engineering
  • Amy Erica Smith, political science
  • Elizabeth Smith, graduate student, community and regional planning
  • Julie Stevens, landscape architecture
  • Blake Van Der Kamp, undergraduate, agricultural and life sciences education