Faculty and Staff IU Community

Interview with Jessica Davis, Director of Sustainability at IUPUI

by Ben Valentine

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in NUVO on Dec. 1, 2020. If you want to check out more of Ben Valentine’s interviews with environmental leaders click here.

Jessica Davis is the director of sustainability at IUPUI, where she develops and leads a strategy to grow sustainability over the whole campus and into the community at large. Davis is all about identifying and building a clear path that is within our means for everyone in Indiana to thrive for the long-term, a win-win. Working with her peers, interns, and students as associate faculty at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at the largest University in Indianapolis, Davis’ work sets a hopeful pathway for how big organizations can act responsibly in our community. 

University Library at IUPUI

BEN VALENTINE: What does a normal day in the office look like for you? 

JESSICA DAVIS: Our days tend to vary quite a bit, but in general, we’re usually bouncing back and forth between any of the following: researching new sustainability opportunities; discussing sustainability solutions that might be a good fit for IUPUI with our campus collaborators, identifying potential challenges to refine implementation, and sharing updates on previous efforts; meeting with student interns about their projects and progress; working on some kind of reporting from programmatic level to campus-wide; presenting to either the campus or Indiana community; communicating our work through @IUPUISustain e-newsletters, and website updates; partnering with students and faculty on sustainability projects they can take on to help us meet our operational goals; planning for and hosting events that will engage our community in sustainability.

VALENTINE: Sustainability is much more complicated than simply recycling or reducing net energy use. How does your office define sustainability?

DAVIS: We utilize the definition put forth by the United Nations: “Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We apply that definition through three lenses —  environmental, economic, and social. That means our decisions for the campus must be environmentally responsible, economically feasible, and socially just. We can’t sacrifice one for the other. That’s what got us into this pickle, to begin with.  

VALENTINE: Why does IUPUI have an office of sustainability, and why should other businesses and institutions start their own? 

DAVIS: IUPUI’s Office of Sustainability was created in 2011 out of an effort led by a committee of faculty and staff who were invested in mitigating IUPUI’s environmental impact. Those folks came up with the first sustainability projects, demonstrated the value of those projects to the campus, and ultimately made the argument for funding an office with full-time staff to focus on accelerating the university’s sustainability efforts. We absolutely would not be here had it not been for their efforts. 

That being said, a committee-based sustainability effort can sometimes only get you so far.  If you want to take sustainability seriously and reap the biggest benefits —  especially the economic ROI of sustainability efforts —  it takes trained professionals. One fatal mistake I’ve seen organizations repeatedly make is thinking anyone can do sustainability and tack it on to someone’s job or assign it to someone who has a personal interest in it. There’s often a stark difference in sustainability performance when you have trained sustainability professionals versus someone picking it up as a side focus. Because our staff are trained in the field, we know what questions to ask, how to identify the best solutions in a sea of options, what is needed to ensure sustainability efforts are aligned with university strategy, and how to frame those solutions in such a way that secures buy-in. I often tell our students that you can know every sustainability solution in the world, but if you don’t know how to convince other people to do it, it doesn’t matter.  Knowledge and successful application of the psychology of sustainability is what sets a sustainability professional apart.   

VALENTINE: Sustainability does not preclude profit. What are some model business leaders in sustainability you admire?

DAVIS: I admire Patagonia’s (now former) CEO, Rose Marcario. Under her leadership, Patagonia has emerged as one of the best examples of a company putting its money where its mouth is. They tell their customers not to buy from them unless they absolutely need it.  They have also drawn a firm line in the sand as far as where they stand politically on environmental and sustainability issues and aren’t afraid to use their market power to say something about it.  I’m also a fan of Elon Musk for his innovation, persistence in questioning the status quo, and work ethic. He’s certainly an imperfect character, but his contributions to the sustainability market are undoubtable. Who would have thought you could make an EV that outperforms almost every other vehicle on the market in its first year?  Elon Musk, that’s who.

VALENTINE: You use the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) as the tool to measure your work. IUPUI is gold-rated, second only to platinum, of which there are only nine in the world. Are you aiming for platinum, and if so, what will it take to you to get there?

DAVIS: We are, but we have some work ahead of us to get there. The main thing that will get us well on our way to platinum is developing a comprehensive strategy for greenhouse gas emission reductions. We’re making major strides on this as we’re currently working to standardize our greenhouse gas emission reporting across the enterprise, which is the first step towards refining the understanding of our emissions profile. Once that is complete, we’ll be able to make more informed recommendations and the scale of solutions needed.

VALENTINE: In our initial discussion, you emphasized that collaboration and community engagement is paramount to success. So instead of asking for your vision for IUPUI, what is your vision for Indiana and sustainability?

DAVIS: There’s the logical answer to this question, and then there’s the more philosophical answer. The logical answer is that I would like to see Indiana recognize and prioritize the sustainability opportunity. There is so much opportunity for job growth, economic development, talent attraction and retention, and community investment that can be realized through the lens of sustainability, and we’re not capitalizing on those opportunities. There are pockets of amazing work being done in communities throughout the state, but I see little being done in a concerted way at the state level. 

My philosophical answer to this question is that I would love for every Hoosier to have an image of what a sustainable community looks like inside their mind. Literally, be able to paint a picture in their mind and describe it. If we can create a shared understanding of what a thriving, sustainable Indiana looks like, it makes it easier for us to collectively believe it’s possible and get to work towards a common goal.

VALENTINE: What is the accomplishment you are most proud of at IUPUI?

DAVIS: I’m most proud of our student interns. I might be biased, but I think we have the best sustainability interns in the state. Some of them started with us as freshmen, and now they’re in graduate school, which means they’ve had 5+ years of real, hands-on sustainability experience before graduating. Most of them are running their own sustainability programming with little oversight. That’s a testament not only to their ability, but also to the IUPUI community for trusting and treating them as sustainability staff. To see their evolution has been incredibly rewarding. It’s my goal that, when they graduate, they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as a sustainability colleague who is confident, competent, and capable. When our interns graduate, they get some of the best sustainability jobs in the state. That’s just what we need —  skilled Hoosiers who know how to fix Indiana’s sustainability problems and are driven to do it.

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