Northwestern sustainability administrator Rob Whittier takes talents to Colorado

Matthew Choi, Assistant Campus Editor

Rob Whittier has climbed Mount Rainier, conquered the trek to Everest Base Camp and scaled Mount Kilimanjaro during his honeymoon. Next week, he will continue on to the mountains of Colorado in a newly created sustainability position at a mountain resort company.

Whittier, Northwestern’s former director of sustainability, left his position Friday to become the first-ever director of sustainability at Vail Resorts. During his time at NU, which began Nov. 14, 2011, Whittier was also the first-ever director of sustainability, a role in which he initiated several new programs and goals to reduce the University’s carbon footprint and improve its sustainability, he said. Whittier said he will move to Boulder, Colorado, to begin work Monday.

When Whittier joined NU, he found it a new learning opportunity and different from anything he had ever done, he said. He took care to get to know the school and saw great potential for impact from the beginning, Whittier said.

“If you can influence an entire university like Northwestern, if you can get across the University — faculty, staff and students — thinking differently about sustainability, the impact that that could have, if every student knew how to be sustainable and sustainability methods, that’s a big potential impact,” Whittier said. “They all go to different jobs and amazing places and travel the world and now have that knowledge.“

Whittier worked on creating goals to reduce the University’s greenhouse gas footprint by 50 percent, he said. In order to do that, the Office of Sustainability worked to reduce the University’s electricity use and organized different members of the NU community to create a more unified effort for sustainability, he said.

However, his favorite part of working at a university was working with students, Whittier said. He said he met with students almost every day from a variety of student groups and initiatives to discuss new projects focused on making NU more sustainable.

“We have an incredibly passionate group of students across a variety of different subjects,” Whittier said. “Those are things that I enjoyed the most and I think will have a lasting memory: just the passion of the students and their ability to get things done through good, well organized activism.”

SESP junior Christina Cilento worked closely with Whittier both as an intern and employee at the Office of Sustainability and as vice president for sustainability for Associated Student Government. She said he was constantly supportive of student innovation and always willing to help student initiatives.

“He was really accessible and interested in students and fostering relationships with them,” Cilento said. “He’s just a really cool guy, and we’re really going to miss having that ally in the administration.”

Whittier said many faculty and staff members had already been working on projects to improve the University’s sustainability before the creation of his position but did not have the unified resources to create as effective an effort. McCormick Prof. Neal Blair was among those faculty members and worked with Whittier on a committee to evaluate what the University was doing to address climate change.

With a background in consulting where business moves quickly, Whittier had to adjust to the academic culture of a university, which was something the faculty and staff helped him navigate, Blair said.

“We’re very different from a business, and we’re not doing things for profit,” Blair said. “Decisions aren’t always made very quickly like in a business where the boss says, ‘OK, we’re going to do it this way.’”

Whittier said he looks forward to moving out west, where he — an avid cyclist and outdoorsman — plans to take advantage of the great recreational opportunities and expose his two-year-old son and expected daughter to that environment.

“I’m really passionate about the outdoors, so for me when (Vail Resorts) contacted me and I went out there to interview for them, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Whittier said. “It was a dream job. There’s something about the mountain lifestyle that’s just really, really cool with what you can do with your day.”

Still, Whittier said he will miss NU and its unique energy and is optimistic about the University’s future in sustainability.

“There is great momentum already at Northwestern, a lot has happened and a lot is put in place to allow it to continue to move,” Whittier said. “If that continues, it will continue to get more students, more faculty, more staff and continue to keep building, and really great things are going to happen.”

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