Sonia Marcus

Director of Sustainability Sonia Marcus will be leaving her post at Ohio University in mid-January.

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Search underway for university’s next sustainability leader

OHIO affirms commitment to environmental initiatives

OHIO will soon begin a search for its next sustainability leader. The search will follow the departure of Director of Sustainability Sonia Marcus, who will be leaving her post at Ohio University in mid-January. Marcus and her husband will be relocating to pursue new challenges and opportunities in the sustainability field.

“Although we all have roles in understanding and integrating of sustainability and ecological responsibility into our work at Ohio University, it is important that we have a strong leader to coordinate our efforts as an institution and facilitate the dialogue that brings us to good ecologically-sound solutions to difficult problems,” said Associate Vice President for Facilities Harry Wyatt. “No doubt Sonia has served the University well and will be difficult to replace.”

“We are grateful to Sonia for her strong leadership and her excellent collaboration with students and with faculty,” said Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis. “Her excellent work has lifted Ohio University as a leader in sustainability initiatives throughout our state and our region. We will now continue that work, building on the progress that Sonia and her student and faculty colleagues have made.”

Marcus was a tireless environmental advocate while attending OHIO’s Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies program and its Communication and Development Studies program. When the Office of Sustainability was created in 2006, she was appointed its coordinator – the first such position at any public college or university in the state of Ohio.

Marcus did not disappoint. Under her leadership, Ohio University has developed and expanded many key sustainability initiatives, including:

  • a long-term sustainability planning process
  • an ecology-based student residence
  • an innovative efficiency program targeting student rental units in the Athens community
  • a highly successful dorm-based energy competition
  • three LEED registered renovation projects, and
  • a campus-wide composting system, which is the largest of its kind at any college or university in the nation

Marcus has also been instrumental in drawing in nearly $2 million in local, state and federal funding for sustainability projects, including a major expansion of the compost facility planned for 2011 and the addition of over 100 kW of solar electricity generation on the Athens campus.

“It’s easier to list Sonia’s accomplishments than it is to list the things she has influenced,” said Wyatt. “We have evolved over the past few years to where the issues of sustainability have become a part of the dialogue when we do just about anything operationally.”

“Her influence has been remarkably widespread in a relatively short period of time and will be evident as we implement the campus-wide sustainability plan, as we accomplish the $30M energy conservation performance contracting initiative, and complete our utilities infrastructure master planning on how we power and condition our facilities in the future,” he added.

Marcus will continue her work for Ohio University through mid-January. Before parting, she paused to reflect on the shared challenges and shared opportunities that lie ahead.

Compass: What are the major environmental challenges facing Ohio University?

Marcus: The politicization of sustainability issues has led to some tremendous set backs for the movement, unfortunately. You can get a glimpse of this by attending a public feedback session on proposed wind turbines, for example. It’s clear that some people are convinced that the alternative energy movement is actually a thinly veiled attack on their culture and their autonomy. You never see community members reacting with such vehemence and bile to proposed cell phone towers. Certain issues have become political footballs and that hasn’t benefitted anyone other than the politicians.

Environmental challenges are “wicked” problems, meaning that they involve many interconnected systems, exceedingly complex relationships, changing stakeholders and no definitive final solutions. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our part to play in the struggle.

Ohio University has to focus on becoming an institution that enhances the living systems within which we operate. And we can do that by taking a good hard look at the things that are within our control and doing our best to act responsibly. That’s also true for any individual, incidentally.

It’s clear that energy infrastructure issues will continue to be very hot in the years ahead – this institution will need to find a way to prioritize energy projects to a greater extent in order to stabilize utilities costs and maintain quality service to our facilities without sacrificing the environment in the process. We can do this by making everyone on this campus a part of this historic effort – a shared campaign for the common and communal good.

Compass: How can the University forge ahead with sustainability issues in light of the current economic challenges?

Marcus: The illusion that resources and ecosystem services are endlessly bountiful no matter how much we abuse them is actually the greatest hurdle facing long-range ecological planning. Resource constraints are nothing new to this movement. In fact, the more that resource constraints are spotlighted, the easier it is for people to see why conservation and wise use are critical to our community’s survival and success.

Money doesn’t stop great projects. Great projects attract the support that they need because they’re great.

Compass: In your opinion, what projects and initiatives need to take priority at OHIO?

The ones that serve to support our key strengths and assets and reinforce ecological sustainability as a core component of the institution’s identity. I believe we will be most successful in the future by positioning ourselves at the intellectual center of critical conversations and research on the impacts of coal-fired energy use, sustainable food systems, and building resilient local communities that enhance our region’s ecosystems.

Compass: Today there are nearly a dozen sustainability offices at public colleges and universities across the state. What role do these offices play in moving sustainability forward at institutions of higher education?

Marcus: I think that the most important function that the office serves is to bring together all of the various threads of our sustainability efforts on campus and weave them together into this beautiful, living tapestry. Once they are interconnected in this way, they tend to support and enhance each other and develop more overall coherence in the University context.

These days, it isn’t a stretch for most folks to understand why we might sit around and discuss alternative energy research, bike lanes, vegetarian meals, the environmental studies certificate, RecycleMania and the investigation of a new co-gen plant, all in the same breath. Telling the story of how those things relate to each other and why they all need to be celebrated is probably the most important contribution that the office can and should make.

Compass: In what ways has OHIO evolved in its approach to environmental issues over the past five years?

Marcus: I have had the great privilege of personally witnessing the transformation of many people’s understanding of sustainability issues up close and in great detail. Every day I have been privy to conversations in which new ways of understanding environmental impacts have been explored, new approaches to defining success have been expanded to include notions of ecological health, new connections have emerged between personal spheres of action and the larger global environmental context. It’s like watching a flower bloom, thousands of times over – it is truly awe-inspiring.

Students, of course, have been the focal point of our outreach and communication efforts. It has been tremendous to see this movement thriving in their midst, powered by their boundless passion and creativity. A new generation of leaders has emerged, and I have no doubt that they will be key players in the transformation of our society and our University in the years ahead. From an ecological perspective, today’s world is one of scarcity, disruption and loss. Tomorrow’s world will be one of ecological abundance and human prosperity, and we will have many Ohio University students, faculty and staff to thank for that.