Seeing Green: Ilsa Flanagan spearheads sustainability at the University of Chicago

image by Sam Bowman

image by Sam Bowman


A framed poster of Barack Obama, the kind with the stencil motif and dignified color scheme, leans against the bare walls of Ilsa Flanagan’s tiny office. The space is a work in progress, much like her job description. Outside the wind blows hard, turning umbrellas inside out, and the world races headlong down the path of resource over-exploitation and environmental collapse. Flanagan has been the University of Chicago’s new sustainability coordinator for three months. She has her work cut out for her.

A wiry and gregarious thirty-something, Flanagan was picked for the job after a nationwide search based on the strength of her accomplishments as the sustainability director for LaSalle Bank. She has already gotten a sense for the University’s culture–and the unique challenge it presents. “I love that there is a tradition of examining every angle of a problem, arguing over solutions, and debating, debating, debating. But I’m also about results and forward movement–so I’m here to facilitate the dialogue but also commit us to making choices that move us toward sustainability.”

So far, Flanagan has spent most of her time carrying out the intellectual legwork required to get any program off the ground, which, in this case, means identifying initiatives through which the University can improve its performance in key areas: greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, conservation of natural resources, expanded transportation options, and recycling. She’s also been interviewing University officials, learning about who does what in order to pull together the coalition she’ll need to move things forward. Flanagan’s first major tasks are to develop a plan of action for the next year and to gather baseline data on the University’s energy consumption to measure its future progress.

All this activity indicates a meaningful shift in orientation for the University with respect to the issue of campus sustainability. Though students pushed for the creation of a Sustainability Council back in 2004, little progress was made in reducing the University’s environmental footprint due to the absence of someone with a full-time position to coordinate efforts, gather baseline data, or create a full-blooded action plan. The administration dragged its feet for years before filling the void. Fourth-year Zoe Van Gelder, who is the chair of the Council and was involved in the hiring process, is pleased about the development: “[Ilsa] is extremely organized and can juggle lots of different projects at once, which is really necessary because the UofC is so decentralized.”

Flanagan grew up in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. “I grew up outdoors, you know, we were outside all the time,” she recalls. “There was a big forest behind my house…I kinda miss that, living in an urban area.” Raised by a single mom, she started working at the age of 12. In high school she played sports, did theater, and worked on the yearbook. It wasn’t until her mid-20s, when she started hiking and camping at national parks, that Flanagan developed an interest in the environment.

After college, Flanagan enrolled in a master’s program in women’s studies. “Then I just had this revelation that I wanted to have a degree that carried a certain amount of power and authority and a law degree made more sense,” Flanagan remarks. After law school, Flanagan became the VP for Public Policy at the United Way. She developed a national policy agenda based on issues of concern to the charity organization, such as welfare reform, housing, and emergency food and shelter. But she wasn’t just a wonk–she also lobbied for her policies on the Hill. “I think that nonprofits, those that do direct service, have a real understanding of where policy intersects with programs and they need to convey that with their state legislatures and on Capitol Hill,” says Flanagan. “So we did a lot of training with local United Ways on how to be an effective lobbyist.”

Ilsa Flanagan; photo by Sujatha Venkataramani

Ilsa Flanagan; photo by Sujatha Venkataramani

Though Flanagan’s policy days are far behind her, they clearly still inform her politics. “I just love that many Americans, of all parties, are now engaging in discourse about public policies at a level I haven’t seen before,” she says. Flanagan cites a recent incident where the Huffington Post sent out an alert asking its readers to dig through the massive stimulus bill on the lookout for pork or anything that raised red flags. “Since when do ordinary Americans have an interest in reading through a thousand pages of completely boring legislation? It’s like all of a sudden we’re participating in our democracy in a more deliberate way–not just every two years in November. This can only be good for our country. In most aspects of our lives, whether it’s the environment or obscure tax policy, we need to start recognizing and valuing the importance of our direct involvement. We need to make the time to be informed citizens.” It’ll be interesting to see how Flanagan’s views on direct involvement shape her engagement with the various stakeholders–students, faculty and staff–that make up the University.

Flanagan began really digging into environmental issues once she joined Sustain, a sustainable development NGO based in Illinois. There, she gained the expertise necessary to become the sustainability director for LaSalle Bank in 2005. “At the time, I was really conflicted and had no interest in working for a corporation,” she admits. “But then I met with several people from LaSalle and talked to a lot of people from the community and it had this really wonderful reputation for being engaged in Chicago…not only for investing a lot of money in the local community, but also for making significant donations to NGOs.” Flanagan built the bank’s sustainability program from scratch, reducing its carbon footprint by greening its buildings, creating sustainable products and services, and integrating social and environment factors into the bank’s analysis of potential deals. Sustainability was a newer concept then, and she was met with a good deal of what she calls “healthy skepticism.”

Before arriving on campus, Flanagan was enjoying a “self-imposed sabbatical.” She was let go when Bank of America acquired LaSalle last January; the new ownership dismantled everything she had worked for. Flanagan spent her newfound free time practicing piano, walking along the lake, renovating her condo, and increasing her yoga practice. She took trips to Utah for hiking and to Ireland to find her roots. She got to canvass Indiana for Obama. “It was this amazing opportunity to allow my head to clear and see what life felt like when there was nowhere you had to be.”

Back in the world of employment, Flanagan is honing her message. Unsurprisingly, she has found that institutions are more responsive to the “business case” for sustainability than the ethical case. She will attempt to sell the University on the cost savings produced by initiatives such as energy management programs, sustainable building practices, and behavioral changes, and to argue that sustainability efforts will drive student and faculty interest.

Although it’s early in the game, Flanagan is already discussing concrete plans, starting with renewable energy use on campus, specifically wind and solar. Another idea is to apply integrative design, a sustainable approach to architecture, to the new construction and renovation projects. Implementing life-cycle costing, which takes into account the environmental impacts of a purchase–whether windows or office furniture–over its entire life-cycle, from manufacture to maintenance to disposal, is yet another. Crucially, Flanagan plans to work with the facilities division and with a consulting firm to understand how energy is consumed in campus buildings and to increase energy efficiency through reductions and retrofitting. Streamlining the University’s recycling system and letting it be known that it does in fact recycle is another important item on the list, as well as adopting a comprehensive alternative transportation plan including bike share, bike lanes, bike racks in high-traffic areas, and real-time carpooling. The latter idea would allow students to coordinate carpool rides spontaneously throughout the day, presumably through use of the Internet.

For now, these remain ideas itching to become bold actions. No matter what strategy she ends up adopting, Flanagan will need to aggressively engage the student body in order to meaningfully increase its environmental awareness and change its habits. The good news is that the budget cuts currently being implemented throughout the University as a result of the recession will probably accelerate rather than impede Flanagan’s project, given the considerable opportunities for savings involved. That is, unless the University balks at the initial investments that will be required.

Despite accumulating evidence of impending global ecological collapse and of a rapidly approaching tipping point on climate change, Flanagan remains optimistic about the future of the planet. “Natural systems are very adaptable; they don’t have political positions and they don’t resist change. Will [the planet] look like it looks now in thirty years? Probably not, it might look a lot different. But the planet will be fine.” Let’s hope she’s right.