HomeIonE AffiliateAfter a decade of great work, UMD’s sustainability director takes on new role for the city of Duluth

After a decade of great work, UMD’s sustainability director takes on new role for the city of Duluth

On any given day, Mindy Granley says she feels like a scientist, a salesperson, or even an energy manager. (She actually holds an energy manager certification.) Right now, she’s making an even bigger shift. After more than a decade of serving as Sustainability Director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Granley started this month as the city of Duluth’s first full-time Sustainability Officer. 

Granley found her way to UMD after several years of water quality work. Although it wasn’t in her title, sustainability was part of that career, too. At that point “sustainability” wasn’t the buzzword it is today, but Granley’s work to protect water and develop local economies certainly aligns with sustainability goals. As Granley explains, however, water quality work wasn’t giving her the opportunities she wanted to tackle climate change at its root. So, Granley applied for an opening and became UMD’s first sustainability director in 2008.

“It’s been a wild ride” ever since, Granley says, balancing the interests and channeling the ambitions of students, administrators, and facilities management. When Granley started at UMD, the central sustainability initiative was recycling collected with cardboard boxes randomly dispersed around campus. Today, UMD has solar arrays, organics recycling, sustainability student groups, and, to Granley’s excitement, another full-time staff person in the sustainability office. 

With full-hearted interest from faculty, staff, and students, sustainability has grown to be incorporated into nearly every discipline taught at UMD. As the campus sustainability director, Granley worked hard to connect students and faculty around sustainability projects and courses to ensure everyone can study and act on sustainability at UMD. Students can choose from a host of sustainability-related courses spanning subjects from anthropology to electrical and computer engineering. Along with the interdisciplinary adoption of sustainability, UMD students are tackling a wide range of projects on topics like water, waste and recycling, and so much more. These students are making real contributions to UMD’s sustainability efforts, and Granley is fast to acknowledge that. One of the best parts of her UMD job, she says, is when past students reach out to her with news about the exciting work they’re continuing post-graduation.

Granley puts a big emphasis on partnerships. At UMD, she worked with faculty, administration, facilities management, students and even the wider Duluth community to initiate projects and achieve sustainability goals on campus and beyond. These groups, Granley says, all want UMD and Duluth to be more sustainable and better stewards of their resources. Her job is to connect them with the resources and opportunities to make those changes happen.

Granley has helped UMD reach a lot of benchmarks, but she thinks the school’s biggest sustainability challenge moving forward is tackling its heating plant. The heating plant is essential to UMD’s campus on the shores of Lake Superior. Yet, the plant is also responsible for 40 percent of UMD’s emissions and is almost at capacity – another building on campus could mean another boiler. Granley wants to avoid expanding the heating plant in its current form and instead is looking for ways to reduce its use and share of emissions. This will be expensive and is going to take a lot of planning, which is why work needs to be done now to build the partnerships and gather the information necessary to tackle the heating plant in the next decade. 

If anyone can find a solution to complicated sustainability issues – like refiguring UMD’s heating plant and energy use – it’s Granley. As Jodi Slick, CEO of Ecolibrium3, a nonprofit focused on bringing economic and environmental solutions to people in Duluth, puts it, Granley “represents the best of what a university can provide.” She’s worked tirelessly over the years, Slick says, to build partnerships between UMD and the city of Duluth. Through years of this work, Granley emerged as one of Duluth’s technical and process experts in sustainability, and was sought by the city and different organizations to play a role in environmental sustainability projects across Duluth. Now, Granley will be able to fill those roles more directly as Duluth’s Sustainability Officer. 

“She has the amazing capacity to not only hold the vision for what we can be as a community, but also has the passion, tenacity, and skill to do the work on the ground to build that vision,” Slick says. 

UMD’s sustainability achievements in the past decade, from solar arrays to a partnership that places engineering students with businesses in Duluth to help design solutions to sustainability challenges, are a clear testament to Granley’s ability to create the kind of visions Slick describes. The most recent example came in December, when UMD received a Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS report (Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System), becoming one of only 127 other institutions to earn AASHE’s highest sustainability score. 

When it comes to her work, Granley is effective and impactful, Slick says. Yet, sustainability is more than Granley’s career. She’s the mom who brings her own tupperware to restaurants instead of using disposable to-go boxes, and she packs her kids’ sandwiches in beeswax wraps. Protecting the planet is part of every action she takes, and it’s a key lesson she’s teaching her kids. It’s part of who she is. 

Granley says she’s nervous about the planet’s future, but that doesn’t stop her from diving headfirst into her work. “Everyday, you’ve just got to work as hard as you can,” she says. And that’s exactly what Granley does, for the betterment of UMD, Duluth, and our whole planet. 

The Institute on the Environment community wishes Granley all the best in her new role and is excited to watch her positive impact extend across Duluth and beyond.

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