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A Decade in Sustainability

Phil Valko is the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Sustainability at WashU. He is a WashU alum, avid bicyclist, proud girl dad, and champion of sustainability efforts across WashU’s campuses and the St. Louis region. Phil just celebrated his 10 year anniversary working at WashU, so we thought we would take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about how sustainability has progressed at WashU over the past decade and learned a lot of other interesting things along the way!  

How did you end up working in sustainability? 

My interest was first piqued by time spent outdoors in nature. I camped quite a bit with my family as a kid and I went through Boy Scouts. I grew to really love natural spaces and wanted to find a way to protect them. When I got a little older, I did Americorps in the Pacific Northwest. We were helping to restore watersheds to bring back salmon populations; we did a lot of ecological restoration like removing invasive species and planting native trees and shrubs to stabilize the watershed corridors that are important for river and stream health.

The time spent in Oregon and Washington was really formative for me, because the landscapes there were dramatically different than anything that I’d experienced. There are old growth forests that have been around for 400-500 years and that deepened my appreciation for the sorts of special places that exist on the planet. It raised my awareness of just how much humans have actually altered the landscape from coast to coast and globally.  

Then, when I came to WashU as an undergrad, I had a chance to learn more about sustainability as a field of study. I thought I wanted to pursue research initially; I wanted to help develop more knowledge around climate change and its impacts on humans and ecosystems. Shortly after undergrad, I began to feel the urgency of action to address climate change and ecosystem loss, which ultimately led me to pursue a career path that was more of a practitioner’s path. 

I feel very grateful that I get to work in academia, and specifically at WashU, because I am exposed to cutting edge ideas and big questions through our faculty and students, while simultaneously working at the forefront of practice. It’s a truly rewarding space in which to work. 

How did your years as a WashU student prepare you for your career? 

The combination of specific knowledge and ways of thinking and processing that I learned in the classroom overlaid well with the co-curricular experiences that I had as a student, which provided leadership and project management experience. There’s no question that WashU prepared me to quickly have an impact as a young professional and for my career today.

My time at WashU also challenged me to think really critically, creatively, and outside of the box. Faculty members asked hard questions of us. Having faculty members challenge our ideas and assumptions led to a much deeper understanding of issues, even if the process led to the same conclusion. Those probing questions have stuck with me and continue to challenge me to think critically about our work today. As we work to tackle immensely complex issues, I think it’s important for us to be very open-minded, be inquisitive, and try to devise solutions based on the best data available. My time at WashU prepared me for that. 

“We have a deep imperative to take decisive, bold action to address both mitigation and adaptation issues.”

Phil Valko

What is the origin story of the Office of Sustainability?  

In my student work with organizations like Green Action, Sierra Student Coalition, and VERDE, I ended up connecting with a lot of great student leaders and university administrators. At the time, there was little recycling in the dorms, and we wanted to see it expanded. So we partnered with Steve Hoffner who led university operations and a range of other staff members to help roll out recycling on the South 40.  

That program and some other successes led to the creation of the first Committee on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and to the best of my knowledge, that was the first collaborative faculty, staff, student, and administration committee put together by WashU to work on environmental issues. CEQ became an important coordinating entity that led to the first full-time staff member being hired as a recycling coordinator in 2002, I believe.

WashU hired its first sustainability director in 2007, and then I joined the university in that role in 2011, which is when the Office of Sustainability came into existence.

As with so many issues, student leadership was a major driving force that led to collaboration with faculty, staff, and administrators. Together, a vision was born, and it evolved into WashU’s current far-reaching sustainability efforts that include leadership and engagement from dozens of departments throughout the institution.

How have sustainability practices at the university changed over the past decade? 

They have dramatically evolved and expanded. It has gone from a small set of initiatives to a holistic strategy that includes active partnership from hundreds of people on campus. It went from a small group of individuals that were working on sustainability to now a whole community that’s working on it. We’ve expanded the number of initiatives and deepened the impact of the initiatives. We’ve diversified our knowledge base—not just the staff in our office, but all the other people that are working on these issues. We’ve become more sophisticated and more committed and as a result, and we’ve been able to accomplish more significant things, as is evidenced through our progress report data.  

I am extremely proud that we’ve centered people in our work. We thrive or fail, based on the engagement of our community and our ability to build buy-in, listen deeply, and think about how our work is intersectional with other big priority areas like accessibility and diversity, equity and inclusion. Finally, a big area of growth we’ve seen is expansion from a focus on campus to a deep set of partnerships here in the St. Louis region, throughout the Midwest, nationally, and internationally. 

What is your proudest achievement at WashU? 

Our breadth of impact. Our community has delivered on almost all of the ambitious objectives that we set forth in our 2015-2020 strategic plan, as well as many additional accomplishments. Our successes include reducing scope 1 & 2 emissions by 22% since 2010 despite growing our space for teaching and research by 13%; completing 33 LEED certified projects, including 8 Platinum and 13 Gold projects; becoming the first Gold-level Bicycle Friendly University in Missouri and one of only six in the Midwest; certifying 110 Green Offices on campus; adding well over 1,000 trees and tens of thousands of other native plants to our campuses; sourcing 22% of our food by spend from within 200 miles; more than quadrupling waste diversion at the School of Medicine and more than doubling waste diversion at the Danforth Campus; reducing water use by over 75 million gallons annually despite growing our space; and much more. We have covered so much ground the last five years.

Another major point of pride is that the work has been driven by our community, not just our office. We’ve been building partnerships and empowering stakeholders throughout campus to be champions of this work within their areas of influence, whether it’s student leaders, staff leaders through the Green Office Program, or colleagues who oversee specific areas like facilities, dining, custodial, grounds, or transportation. The community of people working together to accomplish our sustainability objectives has grown by leaps and bounds. 

What advice do you have for students who are interested in working in sustainability? 

Follow your passions: the number of careers that exist today related to environment, sustainability, and climate is so significant that I feel students have the ability to pursue their areas of curiosity and find exciting careers where they can put their skills to work to have a real impact.

Ask hard questions, ask smart questions, and let data drive your understanding of the issues. I would really encourage students to try to separate themselves from any deeply held beliefs. I think it’s so important that students allow their vision for climate solutions and environmental issues to be driven by data and not dogma. They will be most effective in their careers if they’re the ones who are asking the questions that other people aren’t asking. They’ll develop new knowledge and chart new pathways.  

Strive to be transdisciplinary and intersectional in order to advance a number of different positive outcomes in tandem. Even as students specialize in certain areas, I would encourage them to have an appreciation, knowledge, and respect for other disciplines and other important areas of change, like DEI and socioeconomic inequality. 

Take care of yourselves and your community. Self-care must be part of the work because this can be heavy work. The more time one thinks about and understands the current impacts of climate change on people and ecosystems across the globe, the heavier it can feel. It’s critically important that students who are pursuing careers in this space take the time to take care of themselves and their community of friends, colleagues, and family, so that they can sustain the work over a long period of time—we need the people doing the work to be sustained, too.

What projects and initiatives is the office involved in that you think people may not be aware of? 

I’ll answer this from the perspective of the initiatives that I’m most involved in. I’m sure other members of our team would answer this question differently. I would say the role that we’re currently playing fostering partnerships well beyond WashU that support the adoption of sustainable practice and climate solutions are meaningful, significant, and impactful. I don’t think this layer of our work is well known yet. We can and should do better storytelling about how cohesive our community engagement and partnerships are. This includes our faculty and students engaging with community partners through the Sustainability Exchange and our Schools. This is an area where I think that the university is an anchor: WashU in St. Louis, for St. Louis and also WashU in the Midwest, for the Midwest.  

What are your hopes for the university over the next decade?  

My hope is that we become a powerhouse in teaching, research, and operations related to climate, environment, and sustainability. There’s no question that today we are already a leader in those spaces. I’d like to see each of those prongs continue to deepen and grow significantly. We have a tremendous foundation to build on and I would like to see WashU become even better known than we are today. My hope is that WashU will be one of the first schools students who want to study these issues will think of due to the strength of our academic programs, our cutting edge research, our leading edge operations, and our deep community partnerships.

Where do you see future opportunities for sustainability at WashU? 

Over the last few years, we have learned a lot from the international scientific community about the true urgency of taking action in addressing climate change, preserving biodiversity, and protecting global public health. The impacts of climate change are here today, and they’re going to be getting more severe as they impact communities all over the globe. We have a deep imperative to take decisive, bold action to address both mitigation and adaptation issues.

To that end, we’re currently in the process of strategic planning for the university, asking big questions about how WashU can lead in our teaching, research, operations, and partnerships. While details aren’t yet ready to be shared, I am extremely excited about the scope of ambition.

Finally, I see our alumni community as a tremendous asset to future university engagement in this space. We have thousands of alumni leading on these issues all over the globe. Their expertise, partnership, mentorship of students, etc. is and will be invaluable as we continue to innovate and grow our impact.