Leadership Perspective: Collaborating to Solve Sustainability Challenges

Jennifer Haverkamp, the Graham Family Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, is an internationally-recognized expert on climate change, international trade, and global environmental policy and negotiations. Under her leadership, the Graham Sustainability Institute works to bring together the world-class expertise of U-M faculty and students with the knowledge and needs of off-campus partners to solve sustainability challenges on all scales, from the local to the global.

Haverkamp is also a Professor from Practice at Michigan Law School, teaching courses on international environmental law and trade and sustainability law, and a Professor of Practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. From 2019 to 2021 she served as co-chair of the U-M President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, whose key recommendations for a timeline and pathway for achieving carbon neutrality across all three campuses have been adopted by the Regents and the President.

Beyond academia, Haverkamp had a distinguished career in government, culminating in her appointment as Special Representative for Environment and Water Resources, with the personal rank of ambassador, in the U.S. Department of State under President Barack Obama. She was also the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Environment and Water Resources, worked for the EPA and the Justice Department, and led the international climate program at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

Haverkamp answered questions about U-M’s myriad sustainability efforts, what the future may hold for the Graham Sustainability Institute and the university, and how community members can get involved in the processes.

How is U-M leading in sustainability and what are you particularly excited about?

Universities are complex societies in and of themselves, and premier public universities have a special responsibility to address society’s biggest challenges. U-M convenes cutting-edge sustainability research, a large operational presence, and, crucially, highly motivated students, faculty, staff and alumni. I’m excited by how at U-M, each component is helping drive us toward our ambitious climate action goals, and how our leadership has fully embraced those goals.

We have a bold set of carbon neutrality commitments that cover our Flint, Dearborn, and Ann Arbor campuses and include Athletics and Michigan Medicine. We will procure 100% of our purchased electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and we will eliminate—and not just offset—all of our direct, on-campus greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

We’ve already taken bold actions toward universitywide carbon neutrality. We’ve planned geo-exchange heating and cooling systems, enacted new maximum building emissions targets, and identified $15 million in energy conservation projects to be financed via a shared revolving energy fund—to name just a few of our current efforts. We’re sharing our work at PlanetBlue.UMich.edu.

Of course, U-M carries a long and proud legacy in sustainability. We were the first American university to offer classes on forestry in 1881. In 1970, our students played a critical role in the first “Teach-In on the Environment,” which coalesced into what the entire world now calls “Earth Day.” And starting in the early nineties, the university played a key role in advancing environmental justice as a formal discipline. Today I’m excited about how various schools and units, and not just those who focus primarily on sustainability and climate, like the Graham Institute, SEAS, and the Erb Institute, are working to integrate sustainability topics into their curricula.

Beyond the classroom, I’m impressed with the energy and commitment of our 100-plus environmental and climate action-oriented student groups on campus, led by the Student Sustainability Coalition, and I’m motivated by the 8,000-plus Planet Blue Ambassadors (PBAs) working to integrate sustainability into their work, studies and personal lives. I’m especially pleased that we recently expanded the PBA program to Dearborn and Flint.

On a similar note, what do you see as potential opportunities for U-M in this space?

I’m excited about making our innovations scalable and transferable beyond our campuses. One current collaboration that comes to mind is with the city of Ann Arbor to construct onsite solar installations. We’re pursuing 25MW of on-campus solar, equivalent to the power consumed by approximately 3,000 homes annually. Once built, these will serve as visible representations of U-M’s commitment to our environment and will help foster a culture of sustainability for generations to come.

I also see promising ways for the university to engage through partnerships and with consortia around climate action. I recently had the opportunity to represent U-M at a White House summit on climate change and higher education. U-M is also the lead institution of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) and a founding member of the cross-sector Midwest Climate Collaborative. There are so many advances and innovations in this space—sharing our best practices and learning from others is essential.

Across society we are all facing similar challenges. If universities keep sustainability efforts within our ivory towers, we won’t make a dent into the world’s most pressing challenge. And if we presume to have all the answers, our work won’t match realities on the ground. Mutually beneficial external partnerships are crucial to progress–like those the Graham Institute has been successfully leading with communities and other institutions toward climate action.

Finally, President Ono has been a tireless advocate for sustainability since arriving at U-M, and at UBC before coming here. He understands that our response to the climate emergency helps define our strength as a university, and I’m excited to support his continued leadership in this area.

What is the Graham Institute’s focus right now?

Research and education have the greatest impact when they move across disciplines and beyond the university’s academic environment into the everyday world. That’s why Graham was founded in 2006—to bridge the resources, expertise, and needs of the university community with those of external partners to solve sustainability challenges beyond our campus. That remains our focus today, and I’m proud to lead that sort of collaborative, interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented organization.

Recently our priorities have come into sharper focus around climate change and water resources. We advance progress in those areas by developing our students into sustainability leaders, informing policy and practice, and helping researchers across all the units broaden their impacts.

I’m especially excited about our Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program, which launched in 2019 thanks to generous support from anonymous donors and has awarded nearly $3 million in funding, with more to come. The program supports U-M faculty-led research that has game-changing potential to reduce carbon emissions. We are just beginning to see the outcomes of the first round of funding and I’m confident that you’ll be reading about these innovations in the news before too long. Projects from later funding rounds still have a year or two left in their timelines, but I can share that the research focuses on key strategies for energy storage, material and process innovation, transportation and alternative fuels, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage, as well as on behavioral and equity aspects of emissions reduction.

Our Sustainability Catalyst Grant program, which predates my tenure, continues to grow stronger with every funding round. These modest-but-high-impact grants enable faculty to make their work go further by funding either the expansion and dissemination of earlier research findings or proof-of-concept work with the potential to lead to larger grants. In Detroit, a recent Sustainability Catalyst Grant project helped underresourced neighborhoods turn back alleys into rain gardens, beautifying the area while reducing the very real risk of damaging floods. On Michigan’s west coast, our grant recipients are currently working with insurance panels and city councils to find better ways to protect the shores of Lake Michigan and the properties built along them.

Two of our longest-running programs are still our most subscribed and impactful: the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program for graduate and professional students and the Graham Sustainability Scholars Program for undergraduates. Through these two programs, we have trained well over a thousand students to be lifelong sustainability advocates. In the process, these students have helped dozens of partner organizations across Michigan reach their sustainability goals. It’s inspiring to guide the students as they teach each other in-demand sustainability skills, and the ripple effects of their work are felt in organizations and communities across the state.

Are there opportunities for the public to get involved in or to benefit from Graham’s work?

Yes! Our Renewable Energy Academy (REA), led by Dr. Sarah Mills and Madeleine Krol, offers a variety of community training on planning and zoning for renewables: in-person workshops, on-demand webinars, a guidebook, even bus tours of solar and wind facilities. Because energy zoning in Michigan occurs at the township level, REA is designed for elected and appointed officials from Michigan’s 1800-plus townships–but it is open to all!

For some communities, the revenue from renewable energy developments can be a lifeline. For others, these developments simply don’t align with key community goals. REA helps communities think through the full range of scenarios. If you live in a community that is considering whether to allow renewable energy development or revisiting your existing zoning ordinances, I encourage you to take advantage of the program, which is funded by Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

You can also turn to Graham for reliable information on how to protect your family and loved ones from lead contamination in drinking water. In the wake of the 2014 Flint Water Crisis, Michigan’s testing regulations have become more stringent and we’re discovering elevated lead levels in the public water supply of communities that were thought to be safe. You can access our resources at myumi.ch/leadinwater.

What are your hopes for the future of sustainability work at Graham and U-M?

One of my great desires is for the university to fully implement the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, which I co-chaired. We produced a comprehensive, thoroughly considered set of recommendations for the university, all scalable and transferable. It’s wonderful to see those start to be implemented.

Another strong hope I have for the future is that we continue to fund and support initiatives like the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program. We have the best researchers in the world here at the University of Michigan. To deploy them—and their students—on the greatest challenge of our time is our responsibility as a public institution, and we must find the resources to do so. If we do, we will see a major impact as these high-risk/high-reward programs mature.

Last but certainly not least, U-M has the greatest and one of the largest alumni communities in the world. As we move forward, I invite our alumni to be co-creators of sustainability solutions with us. I truly believe that there is a role for everyone in our efforts: alumni, students, faculty, staff, partners, and supporters. Together we will create a more sustainable, just future.