In July of 2021, NIU Associate Professor Courtney Gallaher stepped into a new role as NIU’s first sustainability coordinator. While sustainability efforts have been active across campus for at least a decade, the sustainability coordinator will help to unify the work of many different departments and organizations.
For her first year, Gallaher has three main goals: to conduct a greenhouse gas inventory of NIU’s campus, to begin tracking NIU’s sustainability efforts according to standards developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), and to conduct a campus tree inventory and care plan as part of Tree Campus USA, a program of the Arbor Day Foundation. Once these initial assessments are complete, Gallaher hopes to advance sustainability goals related to energy efficiency, recycling, composting, biodiversity and conservation, with the help of an advisory committee.
“We’re thrilled to have Professor Gallaher serve as NIU’s sustainability coordinator as part of the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS),” says Gerald C. Blazey, NIU vice president for research and innovation partnerships and NICCS director. “The goal of NICCS is to unite research with action to make a positive difference in the world. Courtney’s research and teaching background in urban agriculture, environmental geography and environmental management position her well to guide NIU as we respond to the sustainability challenges the world is facing right now.”
Gallaher’s position is the result of a shared vision between the NIU Office of Research and Innovation Partnerships and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She will work closely with Dean Bob Brinkmann, who is an international expert on sustainability.
“Employing a sustainability coordinator is one of the benchmarks that shows that a university is serious about making their campus and community more sustainable,” Brinkmann said. “Over the past several years NIU has embraced a strong sustainability research agenda that will now be matched by strong efforts on campus.”
Dr. Gallaher has a very strong background on a range of sustainability issues that will help us address not only environmental sustainability issues, but also issues of environmental equity that are a large part of the modern sustainability movement,” Brinkmann added.
Gallaher’s journey to sustainability coordinator is decades in the making.
“When I was in sixth grade, my mom found out about this contest for schools to do environmental projects and compete for prizes,” Gallaher says. “My school decided we would count up our paper usage in the school for the whole year and plant the equivalent number of trees back on our school property. I managed to get myself appointed the class manager for this school project. I clearly remember being on the phone with the waste management company for the city, trying to find out – how much paper does a tree produce? And how much does that recycle into? Every week, we’d refill the paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms, and fill in little tree charts that we’d designed. And then, we ended up planting about 30 trees on the school property on Arbor Day, and we had a big festival.”
“That project got me thinking about sustainability in institutional settings,” Gallaher says, “so when I went off to college, I knew I wanted to do something environmentally minded.”
Gallaher went on to earn her BS and master’s in soil science and Ph.D. in geography, with a focus on sustainable food and agricultural systems, international development and environmental management. Since she arrived at NIU in 2012, Gallaher and her students have been actively engaged with community projects. They’ve partnered with the DeKalb County Community Gardens to research how community gardens can impact food insecurity, helped to institute a bicycle ride sharing program on campus and worked with the City of DeKalb to conduct the city’s greenhouse gas inventory, to name just a few .
Gallaher, a jointly appointed associate professor in the department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, says she sees her new role as an extension of her teaching and research, and a way to better support and scale up the work she and other faculty and staff have already been undertaking to make NIU more sustainable.
“This is a way to coordinate with student groups and other departments and centers on campus so we can collectively make a bigger difference,” Gallaher says.
NIU is in good company in appointing a sustainability coordinator. The position is becoming more and more common in universities across the country, as universities recognize educational, practical and student recruitment benefits to sustainability.
“It has been clear for a while now that the world is facing major environmental crises, so NIU and other universities recognize that there’s a moral and ethical obligation to do something,” says Gallaher. “But there are also very practical reasons to be concerned about sustainability. It makes good economic sense to save energy. You’re helping the environment, and you’re also saving money for the university. There are also good reasons to think about and prepare for climate adaptation as part of the university’s risk management planning.”
Equally important, a focus on sustainability is not only attractive to students but also serves as an important career preparation for the increasing number of jobs that involve environmental management and sustainability.
“Our whole goal in higher education is to train students to go do meaningful things in the world and to get jobs,” says Gallaher. “I’ll have a graduate student working with me. I also teach an environmental management class every year, and those students are going to help write the campus climate action plan this spring after we’ve completed the greenhouse gas inventory. They’ll also help with some of the more general sustainability documentation, and they’ll work with the City of DeKalb to write the city’s climate action plan. So there are a lot of opportunities to bring students in and train them.”
Gallaher also points out that sustainability is a social justice issue that fits well with NIU’s broader focus on equity.
“There’s very good evidence that environmental issues play out in ways that adversely impact minoritized populations worse than others,” Gallaher says. “The environmental justice movement was born out of studying how environmental toxins have been differentially dumped in communities of color. With climate change, we’re seeing it play out such that low-income communities don’t necessarily have the ability to relocate, have adequate air conditioning, have adequate health facilities, all of that. So all of our environmental problems, as they scale up, become equity issues.”
“We’ve been having such intense conversations about race and social justice for the last year and a half in the United States that we would do well to pair these issues together,” she continues. “People are finally, I think, starting to have the language to talk about equity and sustainability as the same issue.”
In spite of the challenges, Gallaher sees hope for the future – especially when she sees how engaged and motivated students are to address social and environmental issues.
“One of the great things about students, in particular, is they are so enthusiastic and have amazing ideas about what we can do on campus,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t even know that there’s a problem, so students often come to the faculty, saying, ‘I see this problem, how can we solve it?’ and we’ve been able to make it happen.”
Learn more about the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS) on the NICCS website. If you’re interested in becoming involved in the sustainability advisory committee, please reach out to Professor Gallaher at email@example.com.