SustainNU prepares to release second 5-year Strategic Sustainability Plan in 2022


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

SustainNU’s follow up to its 2017 five-year Strategic Sustainability Plan is expected to come later this year. The last one was considered in many ways a success, but some students have concerns about how sustainable NU is holistically.

Joshua Perry, Staff Editor

SustainNU is on course to finish creating its new Strategic Sustainability Plan sometime this fall, setting new goals and benchmarks for Northwestern’s emissions reductions, conservation, resource management and more. 

But some students say the University could be working toward broader climate change reforms.

The first sustainability plan, published in 2017, established a number of objectives to promote renewable energy and a more sustainable environment on campus over a five-year period, ending in 2021. It had five different program areas: Built Environment, Transportation, Resource Conservation, Experiential Learning and Communications and Engagement. 

A steering committee of senior University administrators and officials oversaw pursuit of these areas and the working groups of students, faculty and staff across NU assigned to each one.

The success of the SSP’s implementation was nationally recognized. In 2020, NU became the first university to earn the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy’s ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year — Sustained Excellence award, a distinction it received again in 2021 and 2022. Greg Kozak, director of sustainability, said NU has a responsibility to uphold its eco-friendly reputation with a new, refreshed SSP.

“We need to play a leadership role,” Kozak said. “We have brilliant minds on campus — students, faculty and staff. And we’re seen to be a leader in this space, so we should be doing everything that we can to set the University up for success from a sustainability perspective.”

Developing the next sustainNU plan

SustainNU will likely finish and unveil the plan, which has been in development since April 2021, later this fall, Kozak said. The University met or surpassed most of the material goals set in the first plan, he said, and it is considering setting more ambitious objectives for the new SSP. 

Building off the last five years puts sustainNU in a position to act with valuable insight, according to Julie Cahillane, associate director of sustainability.

“We have something to compare,” Cahillane said. “Now we can look at what we’ve been doing, where other institutions are now and where we want to go to set ourselves apart.”

Until sustainNU releases the plan, Kozak said none of its details are set in stone. But the model plan currently under discussion has seven program areas, he said: Energy and Emissions; Transportation and Mobility; Waste and Procurement; Buildings and Infrastructure; Water and Ecology; Academics, Experiential Learning and Innovation; and Communications and Engagement. 

The new plan will likely also have a much stronger focus on developing objectives using a social lens and examining how equity and racial justice intertwine with sustainability at NU, according to sustainNU Program Coordinator Cria Kay. 

“For this one, we really wanted to make sure we are meeting all areas of the campus community to make sure this plan can be implemented and that people who will be implementing it were involved and had a say on how this will look on campus,” Kay said.

Concerns over sustainNU engagement practices

However, some students say the University would be better served with a different approach to public engagement. Weinberg senior Jack Jordan, who helped organize the Generations of Environmental Justice event on Earth Day, wrote his senior thesis on the history of climate action planning in Evanston. He said he’s seen a critical disconnect between NU and its surrounding community in developing sustainability goals. 

The result, he said, is a broad lack of awareness and investment in those goals among the broader campus community and Evanston locals. 

The University isn’t developing objectives out in the open, Jordan said, and details are only unveiled once the plan is officially approved and published — leaving the general public without a chance to make its voice heard in a forum or town hall. Jordan said NU should be even more transparent and accessible in the development process than they already are.

“The main thing that I want to see is greater opportunities for public participation, greater opportunities for students, faculty, workers at Northwestern, whoever you are, to have some say in what the plan is,” Jordan said.

People would buy into the plan more if they could take greater ownership of it, Jordan said. Introducing public listening sessions and other broad engagement tactics could have significant benefits for NU’s own sustainability initiatives, he said.

According to Kay, sustainNU did put more energy into public engagement this time around. They met with a wide range of stakeholders including Evanston and Chicago officials, members of Associated Student Government’s Sustainability Committee, targeted alumni, sustainability-oriented student groups and local community organizations, among others.

SustainNU can be reached by anybody through contact information on its website, but it doesn’t hold any broad, open forums. The team used an intentional approach to engagement to reinforce the plan’s equity and inclusion efforts for each program area, Kay said.

“Hearing people’s opinions on how they want to see Northwestern change and how they want this to be institutionalized is really important,” Kay said. “Without some kind of concrete plan, those don’t always get prioritized as they need to be.”

Activists say University needs wider climate change reform

Public engagement aside, students like Communication junior and Fossil Free NU organizer Lucy London have concerns about how the SSP fits into the big picture. London said she’s worried the University only follows through with sustainability objectives to boost its image, since portions of its endowment are still invested in polluting fossil fuel industries. 

Divesting from fossil fuels is the single most meaningful step NU can take towards sustainability, London said, but only the Board of Trustees has the power to do so. They said until that happens, the SSP won’t be enough to move the University in the right direction.

“I don’t think it’s accomplishing what it needs to,” London said. “It feels more like a cop-out, like we are doing this so that our institution can continue to run as it pleases. But really, it’s going to have to all change.”

Ultimately, sustainNU can achieve meaningful gains for NU’s operational sustainability, London said, but the University isn’t doing anything right now to address or acknowledge important issues with its broader, institutional sustainability.

Jordan agreed that the Board of Trustees’ investments undermine the progressive, eco-conscious reputation sustainNU aims to build for the University. Until NU divests from those industries, he said, none of these measures will matter in the long run.

“You can’t claim to be accelerating climate action while simultaneously having millions of dollars in fossil fuels,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that one out.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joshdperry

Related Stories:

Green Office Program encourages NU offices to adopt more sustainable practices

SustainNU hosts Repair & Reuse Fair to promote campus sustainability

NU students and faculty advocate for increased sustainability in campus buildings