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New position aims to strengthen MIT’s sustainability

Julie Newman appointed to lead the Institute’s programs in sustainable energy, water and other resources.
Julie Newman
Julie Newman
Photo: Dominick Reuter

Julie Newman, MIT’s first director of sustainability, brings to her new post a portfolio as one of the nation’s most experienced leaders on sustainability in higher education.

Newman, who assumed her role in mid-August, came to MIT from a similar position at Yale University, where she led a sustainability initiative for the last nine years. MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz initiated the creation of the new post — and simultaneously created an Office of Sustainability to serve as a catalyst for advancing sustainable approaches and practices across campus, and beyond.

“Julie brings an unparalleled level of energy and enthusiasm to the work of integrating sustainable processes into all aspects of the Institute,” Ruiz says. “Her presence on campus brings us one step closer to realizing our vision of the campus as a living laboratory where we test new ideas. Julie will be key to advancing MIT’s work with both the city of Cambridge and the city of Boston.”

Julie Newman Photo: Dominick Reuter

Starting in 1997, Newman spent seven years establishing an office of sustainability at the University of New Hampshire — “one of the first offices of sustainability in the country,” she says. After receiving her doctorate in natural resources and environmental studies from UNH in 2004, she moved to Yale, as founding director of its Office of Sustainability. 

To begin the process, Newman has engaged in a “listening tour,” involving MIT students, faculty, staff and administrators, to learn and understand “how MIT functions as an institution, what their vision of a sustainable MIT is, and how best to catalyze the innovation and development of solutions to the complex challenges that are raised from building a sustainable campus.”

“What I get excited about in this field, and thus this position, is the opportunity to work as a catalyst to ensure the integration of sustainability principles across all the operational units of the Institute,” Newman says. She will examine “what the underlying goals are, ranging from capital construction to small-project renovations, energy systems, transportation systems, operations and maintenance, waste management, recycling, water management, procurement and land management.” Her analysis will also examine novel opportunities of financing, organizing and planning such projects.

Newman aims to position MIT’s campus “as a living and learning laboratory for sustainability. When successful, our campus sustainability work will make direct and meaningful contributions to the core teaching and research mission of the Institute.” The opportunities, she says, “may range from testing new technologies currently being developed in labs on campus to studying the organizational behavior that enables a sustainable campus.”

To begin her new role at MIT, Newman will start by “assessing where the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities are now.” That will include work with many of MIT’s department directors and staff to assess current best practices and identify areas for additional leadership.

Newman will work closely with Richard Amster and John DiFava of MIT Facilities to ensure that all new construction, renovation and maintenance projects make the best use of lessons learned from past projects — such as the success of Building E62 at the MIT Sloan School of Management, which has exceeded its initial targets for efficiency. She will also work with Bill VanSchalkwyk, managing director of environment, health and safety (EHS) programs, to ensure integration of sustainable practices in EHS activities.

Newman will also help build upon MIT’s past sustainability accomplishments: For more than 10 years, MIT has taken steps to reduce its energy and environmental impact while actively contributing to local, regional and global initiatives. For example, Building E62 consumes 45 percent less energy than some comparable buildings. MIT has retrofitted more than 90 percent of its existing buildings for energy efficiency, and supported alternative modes of commuting so that 80 percent of MIT staff and students do not drive to campus alone — a figure that is significantly above the state average.

MIT is also a founding member of the Cambridge Community Compact for a Sustainable Future, an innovative, community-based partnership on sustainability with the city of Cambridge, Harvard University and other local organizations. In June, MIT and NSTAR successfully concluded the first phase of MIT Efficiency Forward, renewing the program through 2015. The Institute is also actively engaged in the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, an organization dedicated to developing shared strategies for fighting climate change.

In addition, MIT works closely with the city of Cambridge on a range of sustainability initiatives, including sponsorship of Hubway and electric vehicle charging stations. Faculty members and graduate students are partnering with the city on topics such as solar mapping, infrared imaging, wind and solar analyses and climate preparedness. Currently, MIT is working with the city to explore “ecodistricts” — a new model of public-private partnership that emphasizes deployment of district-scale best practices on sustainability — and the proposed implementation of a building energy-use disclosure ordinance. 

John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and a longtime member of MIT’s Campus Energy Task Force, says that the creation of this new position “will help us accelerate the progress we’ve been making to become more efficient, and to promote sustainability more broadly.” He applauds the selection of Newman, calling her “knowledgeable, experienced and energetic.”

While MIT has already done much to improve energy-efficiency, Sterman says, such efforts “haven’t been as fully integrated and coordinated” as they could be, so “there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

The creation of this new role, reporting to the Office of the Executive Vice President and Treasurer, “is no less than the issue deserves,” Sterman adds. “The integrated approach this position enables will not only improve campus sustainability, it will also enhance our ability to achieve our educational and research mission.” Harvey Michaels, a research scientist and lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning who teaches a class on sustainability, adds, “It says that the decisions being made on campus policy and development are going to be made with sustainability having a top-level place.”

“It’s going to take a community to make this work,” Newman emphasizes, so finding ways to engage students, staff and faculty in these efforts will be crucial. “People are poised and wanting to do more, but they are seeking direction and guidance on how to do so. Moreover, we have the opportunity at MIT to draw upon the unique expertise of our faculty, staff and students to create scalable solutions to complex sustainability challenges.”

“It’s critical that MIT, being who we are, certainly should be setting a good example,” says Leon Glicksman, a professor of building technology and mechanical engineering who currently co-chairs MIT’s Campus Energy Task Force with Ruiz. He points to the success of MIT Efficiency Forward, which has made significant cuts in the campus use of electricity, as an example.

“MIT was the first large institution that started a program like that,” Glicksman says, “and it’s now being duplicated by others. But there are a lot more opportunities along those lines.”

Newman’s arrival should go a long way toward making that happen, Glicksman says. “She’s certainly a leader in that field. I really am excited about having her here.”

Joining Newman in the Office of Sustainability are deputy director Steven Lanou, who previously led sustainability programs in MIT’s Environment, Health and Safety Headquarters Office, and sustainability projects coordinator Susy Jones.

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