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Business Officer Magazine

Stewards by Nature

Chief business officers typically take the lead in operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness on campus. Now, with ecosystem issues routinely affecting decision making, their role includes helping others understand the relationship between economics and the environment.

By Karla Hignite

*Fred Rogers admits that a big draw for attending Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, as a student was his desire to spend as much time as possible in the state's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. "I've always had a strong connection to nature, but I've also been driven by a need to understand how to make things work and how to pay for them," says Rogers, who today serves as vice president and treasurer of his alma mater. That macrosystems orientation helps explain Rogers's ability to facilitate campuswide sustainability efforts.

When he arrived at Carleton in 2004, a number of efforts were under way in isolation, but nothing was cohesive or on a scale to invite broad participation, says Rogers. His attempt early on to formulate a complete picture of campus energy consumption was stymied by having only a single source of utility measurement for the campus, instead of building-specific meters to measure energy demand.

READ ONLINE EXTRAS, Balancing Expectation and Reality,” and "Next Generation Environmental Stewards," in Business Officer Plus.

Today, rich sources of input help guide and inform the climate action plan approved by Carleton's trustees in May 2011, says Rogers. Among them are campuswide metering; policies for Energy Star equipment, recycled paper, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards; and broad participation from faculty, staff, and students.

Kathryn Lindahl's journey to becoming a sustainability advocate took a different twist, at Michigan State University (MSU), East Lansing. Lindahl, assistant vice president for finance and operations, says that in 2006 her vice president asked her to oversee a new environmental stewardship initiative that would entail pulling together units from across the institution to identify and prioritize campus projects. "I recall saying to him, 'Before we go public with this, let me go home and buy some recycling bins.' I didn't fear the enormity of the challenge, but I knew I personally had to get up to speed before I could effectively lead others," says Lindahl.

MSU's Boldness by Design initiative has since produced more than 70 formal recommendations and countless changes across the campus—from increasing the number of recycling bins and tracking use of paper and other materials, to billing individual units for utility use, to implementing an engine-idling policy and reducing HVAC running times in all buildings.

Another skill increasingly in demand for the chief business officer is that of idea generator.

Rogers and Lindahl reflect an emerging reality: No matter your past experience, sustainability competence is becoming an essential job requirement for chief business officers. The role of the CBO has always included identifying cost savings and innovative business practices, enhancing operational efficiency, ensuring the long-term financial strength of the institution, and avoiding undue risk. Because many of the decisions that campuses face today require sophisticated analysis of their cost, benefit, associated environmental risks, and carbon-related impacts, business officers are increasingly expected to help guide those conversations as well.

If futurist Bob Johansen is correct, that expectation won't fade anytime soon. Cofounder of the Institute for the Future, Johansen asserts that today's leaders must take into account "the larger context of life" and consider ecosystem issues as a critical component of everyday decision making. "Leaders in the next decade will not just be leading organizations; they will be leading life," asserts Johansen, in his book Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009).

Whereas mechanical thinking and engineering drove the previous economic era, the challenges and opportunities posed by nature will emerge to define the next, says Johansen, and profitability will come to be measured within the context of sustainability, not according to today's more narrow economic criteria. "Biology and the life sciences will become the critical drivers of business performance."

What, then, is the leadership role of the chief business officer in addressing the environment's challenges to the institution, and what new skills are required to do that? "As CBO," says Rogers, "your role is not to force an agenda but to illuminate the choices in ways such that everyone understands the differences."

Connect the Dots

It is always the job of the chief business officer to identify emerging issues that could fundamentally change how institutions do business, says Lindahl. In the legislative area, Sarbanes-Oxley is a good example. "Today, we need to manage the environmental challenges of our campuses as we do any other portion of the institution's cost and risk portfolio," she says. While the main consideration in this arena for many has been energy, that's only one slice of the sustainability pie, suggests Lindahl. "On any given day, I have meetings on construction or renovation, purchasing and supply chain, and transportation and ridership concerns—each with specific environment-related impacts that must be factored into the equation of our total financial, environmental, and reputational risk.

"As a leader, I also have to dig a bit deeper on almost every aspect of managing our utilities and costs. That includes understanding the tipping points that drive significant expansion of power needs; calculating the impact of various decisions on greenhouse gas emissions, capital needs, debt, and deferred maintenance; and staying current with impending state and federal mandates," explains Lindahl. Decisions  must be truly integrated. "Understanding the domino effect of one decision on several other areas is more important than ever for the CBO," she concludes.

Lindahl and Rogers offer some advice for framing that understanding:

Data discipline. MSU joined the Chicago Climate Exchange several years ago, says Lindahl, in part to learn how to measure and report the university's greenhouse gas emissions in a disciplined way so that leaders would have confidence about passing a future audit. Consistent data gathering also helps stakeholders better understand what is possible in the near term versus the long term. One outcome: "We've moved from assuming that we will expand our power plant when we run out of steam and electrical capacity to looking at ways we can reduce demand to avoid a major expansion," says Lindahl.

Broader and more incremental effort. Lindahl also believes that such attitude change has occurred in part because more people are involved in the broader discussion. "Instead of a narrow focus on electricity at the lowest price, plant operators now also consider the emissions-related impacts of burning coal," she says. "And instead of students calling for an immediate switch from fossil fuels, they now understand the financial and infrastructure challenges that require a more incremental transition toward a vision of 
100 percent renewable energy consumption." To formalize the discussions, MSU tasked an energy transition plan committee—composed of faculty, staff, and students—to develop goals and strategies. "The power of a group like this is that all of us have to compromise," says Lindahl.

The outcome has been dramatic. "Our conversations today are incredibly different than they were even five years ago," says Lindahl. "As a leader, you first have to gather all views into the same room so that everyone can move forward together."

From theory to practice. Connecting the dots between curriculum and practical experiences is likewise important so 
that students can learn how things work and contribute their stamp on the process, says Rogers. He recently encouraged a professor and his students to run Carlton's climate action plan through various scenarios based on the possibility of carbon taxes, price fluctuations in different energy sectors, and any other unforeseen circumstance they could imagine, says Rogers. "They essentially deconstructed the work of the consultant who helped us put this together. It not only was a great learning experience for students, but it yielded a valuable set of alternative assumptions for the college to consider as we move forward with implementing our plan."

Release Some Balloons

Another skill increasingly in demand for the chief business officer is that of idea generator. Thomas Sonnleitner believes some may be hesitant to bring new ideas to the table because they are overwhelmed with what is currently on their plates. That thinking ultimately holds the institution back, says Sonnleitner, vice chancellor of administrative services at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UW Oshkosh). "I view part of my responsibility as floating trial balloons. Put all your big ideas out there to see what catches air and rises to the top."

Sonnleitner characterizes UW Oshkosh's sustainability history as one of experimentation while simultaneously venturing down multiple roads. Following an initial utilities audit, for example, the university joined the Clinton Climate Initiative and became a charter member of the American Council on Renewable Energy. The university currently has seven installations on campus where students, faculty, staff, and the extended community can learn about solar power, biomass, LEED principles, and other campus sustainability and renewable energy initiatives, says Sonnleitner. In the works are plans to add three wind turbines and perhaps a geothermal installation at some point. "With each step taken, we've sought not only financial advantage, but progress toward creating a niche for our institution," says Sonnleitner. The goal: to become a living-learning laboratory of renewable energy infrastructure.

The university's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 will rely in part on the success of its latest energy endeavor. With its dry fermentation anaerobic digester in the process of being commissioned, the university is currently seeking financial support for a wet biodigester. For this project, the institution will partner with the largest dairy farm in Wisconsin, BIOFerm Energy Systems (a German company), and UW Oshkosh Foundation, and will use the Environmental Research and Innovation Center—a UW Oshkosh national biogas testing lab—to provide faculty and students with opportunities to measure methane content, says Sonnleitner.

"None of these projects could have been possible without the sponsorship and support of our foundation through the use of its 501(c)(3) status." Sonnleitner acknowledges that the ideas that float to the top at one institution could be nonstarters at another. While there may be no perfect solution for any institution, he says, "we're exploring the combination that fits with our mission."


The ability to provide a framework and develop a cogent narrative about institutional initiatives is another critical attribute for today's leaders. For sustainability efforts, that includes helping others understand what may work best according to the institution's geography and other situation-specific factors, says Morgan Olsen, executive vice president, treasurer, and chief financial officer at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Go with what you've got. Drawing on the region's 300-plus sunny days each year, ASU is developing a series of large- and small-scale solar photovoltaic systems. In September 2011, the university announced the installation of 46 solar systems, producing more than 10 megawatts (MW) of on-campus generated solar capacity. That's enough energy to power 2,500 Arizona homes, and it distinguishes ASU's Tempe campus solar energy capacity as the largest of any single U.S. university campus.

The overarching energy goal of ASU's leadership is to double the institution's solar capacity by 2014. The resulting  20 MW would account for about  40 percent of the university's current peak load, says Olsen. Toward that end, a five-acre solar structure is in the works. Located over a parking lot adjacent to ASU's Packard Stadium, the solar project is designed to generate 2.1 MW of electricity, while providing shade for 800 parking spaces.

Build momentum. When Olsen joined ASU in 2008, the university's environmental commitment was in full bloom. President Michael Crow, a known national leader in sustainability initiatives, enlisted university leaders to develop an impressive organizational infrastructure, including a school of sustainability that has already produced its first undergraduate and doctoral graduates; the Global Institute of Sustainability, a sustainability practices network and oversight council; and a working group on carbon neutrality. Numerous other formal and informal groups keep the conversation flowing across the university's four campuses.

Developing depth and breadth of sustainability-related understanding and practice among faculty, staff, and students has been a core objective in building ASU's brand, notes Olsen. "We have hundreds of faculty members involved in instructional programs and specialized research across many disciplines who are making the connections from an academic standpoint as well as to our physical presence as a campus," says Olsen. Every employee can, at the very least, get involved with ASU's green team or take part in the university's sustainability literacy program. "Part of the secret sauce behind ASU's success is that sustainability is embraced broadly," explains Olsen.

Evaluate the options. One area where the business officer plays a key role is in helping institution leaders understand the relationship between economic challenges and environmental priorities. Relevant decisions are doubly hard to make in the current context, which for many institutions is an unprecedented era of constraint in traditional funding sources, notes Olsen. Helping institution decision makers navigate not only the financial realities but also the value proposition of what their institutions offer requires a new level of acumen from the chief business officer, adds Olsen.

"At ASU, we believe that what we are providing in the marketplace, combined with the very real interest of students in what we offer with regard to programming and our overall sustainability commitment, feed directly into the economic value of what we're doing, which then contributes to further success," says Olsen. "There is a synergy between market appeal and economic value that actually helps expedite how rapidly we are able to adopt additional ideas and initiatives."

Building a sustainability-focused brand isn't the endgame for ASU's leaders, notes Olsen. The primary focus behind the university's concerted efforts is to contribute to the field and practice of sustainability from a national and global perspective. "As a large research institution, we are active in the development and dissemination of knowledge, learning how to do things better and more efficiently, and sharing that expertise with others," explains Olsen. "We want to be on the leading edge of green energy development and to have these ideas permeate our teaching and research so that our 72,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff members understand how these challenges impact their lives and their careers, and understand what it means to be a good global citizen."

Stay Tuned In

Today, good global citizenship requires environmental literacy, suggests Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon. "Something we must be careful of is not to become distracted by naysayers. As educators and as higher education leaders, we have to continue the work of preparing students for their civic responsibilities." Yet, the process itself should be invitational, believes Spilde. "When you invite others to be part of something and they find it exciting, you'll soon find others who want to join as well, and the effort will quickly assume a life of its own."

Indeed, sustainability has taken an organic course at Lane, where passion preceded policy, says Spilde. "First we had small pockets of faculty and staff who were interested in recycling and energy analysis, without regard to policy or a plan." One success accumulated after the next. "Only after stepping back and seeing all the good things we had accomplished did we begin to develop policies for new building design, transportation, and general education curriculum," says Spilde.

Two overarching goals for Lane have been building broad understanding of sustainable ecosystems and practices, and applying the principles of a sustainable economy to both the learning environment and the operational work environment, says Spilde. The objectives are coming to fruition with the development of Lane's downtown campus, the site of a long-ago demolished Sears store that is getting new life as "a building that teaches," says Spilde. The facility will house Lane's energy management programs and upwards of 250 student residents who will directly participate in the building's energy and water conservation efforts.

"Two words we use routinely at Lane are 'sustainable' and 'scalable'," says Spilde. "We want to continually build our capacity as we widen the net." Spilde has also been active at the national level in this regard. As a former board chair of the American Association of Community Colleges, Spilde helped guide an initiative that later became AACC's SEED Center—a Web-based resource allowing community colleges across the nation to benefit from the work already done on specific sustainability education and economic development initiatives. That way, individual institutions don't have to reinvent the wheel, notes Spilde, and can feel more confident about moving into the sustainability space if they aren't already there. "Moving your organization forward requires not thinking you are the only one with good ideas."

Trade Secrets

Lindahl concurs. "At MSU, we can't assume we are the best at everything we do. In any given area, I am constantly assessing whether we are on the leading edge of change, the bleeding edge, or about in the middle." That provides context for Lindahl to consider where small adjustments may be needed along with occasional bold moves.

"I don't think CBOs have to be convinced about the need to make changes regarding energy and resource use on our campuses. What we need are more learning opportunities to feel confident that we understand the complexity of the issues and how to effect real change for our institutions," says Lindahl. "The more we can share ideas and solutions, the better we all will be as leaders."

In fact, Lindahl is most energized when she's in a room where other people have better ideas or have tested something at their institutions that MSU hasn't tried. She and her Big 10 counterparts who are leading environmental stewardship efforts on their respective campuses gather routinely to discuss energy, infrastructure challenges, and other environmental stewardship issues and initiatives.

"Instead of being protective of our own successes, something that I think higher education often does really well is sharing information that ultimately raises the bar for everyone by allowing institutions to leapfrog each other with the next best development or approach," says Lindahl. She personally doesn't hesitate to steal a good idea and bring it back to MSU. "If Penn State has done all the modeling for testing a new filter that significantly increases the efficiency of their laboratory fans, I don't feel the need to repeat the experiment," says Lindahl.

Honor and Preserve Nature

Where Sheri Tonn sees greater need for her attention with regard to the sustainability agenda at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, is in her board liaison role. A recent restructuring of PLU's board of trustees has Tonn, vice president for finance and operations, serving as staff to four committees. That should help her facilitate broader understanding among trustees about key challenges in moving forward with the university's energy agenda.

Of primary concern is a planning gap between PLU's longer-term goals and its short-term, two- or three-year focus on specific sustainability initiatives. Among those: transitioning from dependence on dispersed natural gas boilers to primarily geothermal and photovoltaic energy sourcing. "We haven't yet developed a clear road map or identified the funding sources to get there," says Tonn.

Admittedly, Tonn spends more of her time in day-to-day sustainability efforts than in the daily routine of other operations, in part because responses to institutional environmental challenges aren't yet in the muscle memory of many employees, says Tonn. Recently she intervened to make sure that the 17 trees the college was forced to remove to comply with local fire marshal requirements would not end up as firewood. "Some of these are 100-year-old fir trees," says Tonn. She eventually found an alumnus who owned a saw mill five miles from the campus, did custom cutting, and could store the trees until needed.

Some of the wood is now being installed as part of a decorative entry wall of a new theatre—an element the architect already had planned that can now incorporate a local resource. More of the trees will be turned into an altar and benches as part of a chapel renovation. "Some people thought it was crazy for me to spend so much time and energy sorting this out, but I couldn't let it go," says Tonn. "Now these trees have a new life, and so many who visit our campus will still enjoy their beauty."

Build to Last

When Beverly Daniel Tatum became president of Spelman College, Atlanta, 10 years ago, she expected to find a recycling program on campus. While the practice was prevalent throughout her native Northeast, Tatum quickly learned that the city of Atlanta did not yet have a program.

Spelman did have an environmental studies program under development, but the college lacked a focused commitment to sustainability, notes Tatum. She was determined to change that.

"Spelman's founders built our campus 130 years ago intending to create an infrastructure that would last 100 years, and we are fortunate to have historic buildings that have been very well preserved," explains Tatum.

In that same spirit, when the college had the opportunity in 2006 to break ground on Spelman's first new construction project of the 21st century, Tatum wanted to build something to last the next 100 years. "When we opened our newest residence hall in 2008, we made history as the first historically black college and university [HBCU] with a LEED-certified building on its campus," says Tatum. A solid development following this achievement was the board's approval of a resolution to commit all new construction and renovation to at least LEED Silver standards.

In 2010, Tatum delivered a convocation speech entitled "Sustainable Spelman" that addressed why it is so important for the college to pay attention to issues of sustainability. "We are educating the next generation of leaders in our society, and it is critical that they understand the connections between our environmental, economic, and social challenges as a nation and as a world," says Tatum, echoing part of her convocation message.

Spelman is a women's college, primarily serving women of African descent, many of whom are at a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attack in large part due to rising levels of obesity, says Tatum. Those health risks are not the result of personal lifestyle choices only, but are also a reflection of declining neighborhood environments around the country, suggests Tatum.

In fact, Spelman is located in a neighborhood where the only grocery store within walking distance closed a couple of years ago, creating a virtual food desert, she suggests. "What does it mean for whole communities not to have access to health-giving food? Or clean water or air? Or viable opportunities to participate in our economy?" asks Tatum. "As leaders, and as educators, we must work to preserve our neighborhoods and pursue what is life-sustaining for us as individuals, communities, institutions, and a society at large."

Lead for Life

In his book Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, Bob Johansen concludes that an increasingly important skill for those in charge of any enterprise is bioempathy, the "ability to see things from nature's point of view; to understand, respect, and learn from nature's patterns."

Does that sound too far afield for the data-and-spreadsheet world of the business officer? Some CBOs involved in campus sustainability efforts for many years have at times struggled to find a better word than "sustainability"-one that more people understand or aren't turned off by if they don't have a particular passion for environmental concerns. Tonn and Spilde—both located in the Pacific Northwest—suggest that those around them would think it was odd if they did not use "sustainability" to describe their activities.

Lindahl prefers the term environmental stewardship. "As CBOs we have a stewardship responsibility in everything we do—whether it's finances, human capital, or water and utilities. Pick your area, and stewardship is a big part of it all," notes Lindahl.

"Perhaps where we as leaders need to turn our attention is to repackage what sustainability encompasses, because it really is the basis of everything an institution of higher education is about when you view its broader mission," suggests Ed Poppell, vice president for business affairs and economic development at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

A driving force of the energy and passion behind the sustainability agenda at UFL has been the university's student body, with a new batch of students coming on board each year bringing fresh ideas and demands, notes Poppell. "There is genuine concern with the current generation that we as a country haven't been good financial or environmental stewards, and there is a real sense of urgency that we need to make some big changes as individuals, institutions, and as a society."

This goes well beyond concern about our use of natural resources, adds Poppell. "The current situation across the nation—with so many young people, especially, wondering about what kind of job awaits them, if any, or whether they will someday be able to afford a home or raise a family—speaks to a larger gap in how we need to think about sustainability."

For Poppell, embracing a sustainability focus in business operations boils down to good common sense. "The positive outcomes of policies and initiatives aimed at conservation and efficiency are no more evident than in the daily operations of a campus, and go hand-in-hand with what every chief business officer is charged with caring about as an institution's primary steward of its resources," says Poppell. "We're about building communities that work together, live together, play together, solve problems together, and, hopefully, survive together."

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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Laying the Groundwork for Ecological Accounting

Higher education has witnessed a sea change in recent years with regard to the way colleges and universities think about sustainability, suggests Mitchell Thomashow, former president of Unity College, Unity, Maine. One possible catalyst may be the growing anxiety about climate change, the implications of which more leaders are beginning to understand, says Thomashow.

Also important to emphasize is the organizational momentum that has boosted the conversation at the national level, he adds. Thomashow points to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment , which offers institution leaders a substantial infrastructure and resources for collaborating to advance sustainability on and beyond their own campuses. Likewise, AASHE (the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) provides one of the best higher education conferences that brings together faculty, staff, and students representing multiple disciplines to share ideas and practices, says Thomashow.

Yet, more work is needed before some institutions are ready to embrace sustainability:

Pump up the pipeline. The chief business officer is a key player in environmental efforts, asserts Thomashow. Yet a CFO search several years ago led Thomashow to realize that not all chief business officers were experienced in the area. In fact, in this case, the opposite was generally true.

Thomashow posted a job description specifying the need for an ecological approach to cost accounting. Some might refer to it as "life-cycle accounting," which factors in the total cost of ownership over the life of an asset, including environmental impact costs. Of about 50 applications that he received, only two referenced this competency. "I don't think that same result would occur today, but what it suggested to me then was that a majority of CFOs either did not know how to consider the relationship between the economic value and the ecological value of institution resource decisions, or they did not think doing so was important," says Thomashow. "Either way, that signals a pipeline issue."

Conservation or consequences. A lack of understanding about or commitment to sustainability-minded business operations and decision making can also result in long-term costs to the institution, notes Thomashow. For instance, the inability to think creatively about how to tackle campus environmental or energy priorities could result in missing out on the smaller steps that can move you forward. "I disagree with those who suggest that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. It depends on how you scale and frame the bigger projects," says Thomashow. "You may not have the funding to convert all your oil-heated buildings to wood pellets, but you can start with a single structure."

Similarly, when it became clear that Unity did not have the resources available to build a new $4 million science building, focus shifted to building the most energy-efficient $500,000 facility possible, says Thomashow. "Sometimes you have to address your priorities in chunks." Creativity with financing is another area where CBOs must exhibit leadership, notes Thomashow. He is pleased to see more institutions setting up revolving loan funds within their endowments to provide a steady source of capital for sustainability projects.

Put passion first. On a more subtle level, CBOs play an important role in student retention when they help their institutions finance the kind of campus environment that is increasingly attractive to students. Robust recycling and renewable energy projects and local and organic food choices are good examples, says Thomashow. "Whether they think so or not, chief business officers teach—every bit as much as faculty do—when they help others think through the relationship between the institution's sustainability values and its financial capacity."

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Developing Future Stewards

The value of broad sustainability leadership development throughout the institution is evident when one considers the typical pipeline for filling the chief business and financial officer position—a role with increasing responsibility for sustainability-related planning, decision making, and implementation.

According to the 2010 Profile of Higher Education Chief Business and Financial Officers, (NACUBO's first national profile of CFOs at American higher education institutions), one third (36 percent) of college and university CFOs have spent their entire careers within higher education. For chief financial officers at comprehensive institutions, that share reaches more than half (51 percent). Furthermore, when asked how participants came to assume their current role as CFO, two thirds (68 percent) said they made the move from within higher education, including more than 80 percent of CFOs at comprehensive and research institutions. Overall, only 17 percent of participating CFOs had worked at colleges and universities for less than 25 percent of their total careers.

All this suggests a strong element of promotion from within—both from within individual institutions and within the higher education sector as a whole. Thus, prior roles within the institution are quite important for preparing CFOs to assume their responsibilities of sustainability leadership. Ample opportunity to participate in campus projects and decision making are not only beneficial, but critical for those in roles leading to the CFO spot. As for those most likely to move into the CFO role from a non-CFO role within higher education, survey results indicate that controller (33 percent) was the most likely previous position, followed by assistant or associate vice president for finance (19 percent), director of budget (15 percent), and system executive (10 percent).

The survey's identification of significant areas of involvement for the CFO provides further evidence of the need for environmental leadership development in lower-level positions leading to the CFO role. While primary areas of responsibility include budget (97 percent), controller (94 percent), purchasing (90 percent), and bursar (81 percent), CFOs likewise are responsible for the institution's physical plant (75 percent) and facilities management and auxiliary services (70 percent)—two areas closely associated with campus sustainability efforts.

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