Celebrating a year of sustainability efforts at UW–Madison

The Office of Sustainability has released its latest report compiling UW–Madison sustainability highlights from the last year. What can readers expect to find?

UW–Madison students, faculty, and staff engage in an impressively wide range of sustainability-related activities, including institutional initiatives and programming, teaching and research, and many forms of outreach and community-building. Some of these activities are explicitly associated with the term “sustainability” or “environment,” while others are not. For instance, the first highlight in the latest Office of Sustainability report is this impressive and on-brand statistic: UW–Madison produced the most climate change research of any Midwestern university from 2014–2018 and generated over $459 million in funding for sustainability-related research in fiscal year 2020.

But scroll down to the section called “A High-Performing Organization”—the highlight document is structured to align with the latest Strategic Framework—and you’ll find a different sort of entry: UW–Madison hired its first Director of Tribal Relations in 2019, and the university is taking additional steps to recognize the 13,000-year history of the Ho-Chunk people on this land and to acknowledge their forcible removal from this region.

Is this sustainability? In fact, it is: the increasingly influential UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include 17 goals with associated targets and indicators; Goal 16 is to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” One target within this goal is to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels,” particularly at public institutions. By facilitating better tribal relations and attempting to improve representation of the First Nations of Wisconsin among UW–Madison leadership, the university is, in effect, working toward this target for sustainability. Indeed, UW–Madison will soon be measuring itself against the UN SDGs, as the latest iteration of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS), which the university completed for the first time in 2019, has now been aligned with the SDGs.

The Office of Sustainability report, in this spirit, seeks to illuminate how the concept of “sustainability” incorporates more than recycling, composting, or even greenhouse gas emissions; it also, inherently, incorporates complex social, cultural, and economic issues. Energy reduction and alternative transportation are both central to a sustainable campus, but so too are things like research on global health, exploring the concept of plastic through art, and innovative faculty recruitment methods like the latest cluster hire in freshwater sustainability.

So read on (and catch up on previous years, too)—there’s much to make the UW–Madison community proud.


By: Nathan Jandl