Five Questions: Coordinating Multiple Campuses in their Sustainability Efforts

October 13, 2009

Matthew St.Clair is the sustainability manager for the University of California’s Office of the President, leading sustainability efforts across the UC system. He talks to Campus Ecology about what makes his job unique and the politics of changing the university.

CE: How many campuses do you work with and what have been the main focuses of your efforts?

MS: The UC system comprises ten campuses. Of those, UC-Davis is the only one that is still working on writing its climate action plan. The biggest focus is on implementing a very aggressive energy efficiency system. We’ve been fortunate in receiving funding through the state’s public utility program. Over the next few years, we’re receiving $60 million in grant funding, and investing an additional $180 million of university funding. We expect to gain back all of it through savings on our utility bills.

We did comprehensive engineering analysis and are sure that we’re going to get a return on investment high enough to pay us back and more than cover the interest on the bonds. What was most important to us was that we wanted to have a portfolio of projects and not just pick the low-hanging fruit. So we haven’t been looking at pricing them out individually, but rather combing short term payback projects with long term paybacks in order to work on everything we want to get done.

CE: Are your greatest challenges financial, technical, or administrative in nature?

MS: We don’t have as much trouble with the financial or technological aspects as we do with getting staff time. We are experiencing severe budget cuts in state funding, so we can pay for the equipment to do energy efficiency, but we can’t necessarily afford the labor to install them. It’s been difficult to get staff time at campuses to put people into it: each of the individual schools is getting squeezed to lay off people and they are having a hard enough time keeping their people.

What we need is not to ask everyone to work twice as hard, but to make sure that sustainability and our climate action planning process is a priority. Staff and time need to be reallocated towards energy efficiency. It takes strong leadership to do that in this harsh budget climate.

CE: Is there a shining example of a school in your system that’s managed this?

MS: UC-San Diego. They’ve made sure they have the staffing, resources and everything else they need to utilize all the grant funds possible. They use all the money they can use as quickly as they can, and its one of the campuses where there’s leadership from the top. The director of the utilities there is John Dilliott, who’s really making things happen. Most of their effort is spent on clean energy projects: fuel cell, biomass, energy efficiency, but it isn’t only installation and maintenance that are challenges: the contracts and legal transactions also take a lot of time and expertise.

CE: What’s the difference between your job and that of a sustainability coordinator on an individual campus?

What I do is very similar to what a sustainability officer would do, it’s just the scale that’s different. My work, a lot of it anyway, is political, understanding people and motivating them. How do we get them on board? I spend a lot of time developing relationships with key people. I helped each of the UC campuses create a chancellor’s committee on sustainability, and helped each create a sustainability officer position at their school.

I also try to provide moral and other support to champions on each campus, in part by sending them news and best practices examples that provide ammunition for their work. We coordinate multiple system-wide topical working groups across which they share best practices.

Most importantly, I try to help by being a sounding board, giving technical or practical advice on how to do what they need to, and if it helps them to say, “The Office of the President and Matt St. Clair said such and such,” in order to get cooperation from other sectors of the campus, then they can do that. I am trying to empower them to find solutions to their own individual problems.

CE: You say the majority of your job is political: what have you learned about understanding and motivating people?

MS: The best thing is to encourage people that are doing important work I want to see more of. I find out what will be the best way to reward them, whether that’s recognition from their boss or media attention or a write-up somewhere. If there are relevant awards, I encourage them to apply. In terms of people that are potentially barriers, the process is the same: learning what they are motivated by, such as money or attention or political will, and most importantly, developing a relationship with them so that they feel that their concerns are being heard and addressed.

The question I ask is, what can I do that will allow everyone else to get a lot more work done? One of the things I had to figure out, and I have counseled all the sustainability officers on this when they arrive, is that we don’t have time to manage every individual project on campus. But if we look at our job as facilitating and cheerleading those efforts, we can see “a thousand flowers bloom,” as the saying goes.

Mat in the sunflower gardenMatthew St.Clair is the first Sustainability Manager for the University of California’s Office of the President, leading sustainability efforts across the 10-campus UC system since 2004.

He holds a Masters degree in environmental policy from the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and a Bachelors degree in economics from Swarthmore College. He has a background in environmental policy and advocacy, working on international campaigns for Friends of the Earth Czech Republic and on renewable energy policy research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

St.Clair is also a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, as well as LEED Accredited Professional.

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Published: October 13, 2009