HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Out from behind the curtain

Director’s Almanac: Out from behind the curtain

There’s a lot about directing an institute that’s visible to the outside world, and the public parts of my job are fun and exciting. But there’s a lot that I do that isn’t public at all, work that goes on behind the scenes. This work is just a important as the loud and visible part: It’s about building relationships and recruiting partners to our institute’s mission, sometimes one partner at a time.

Earlier this month the public and private collided, because I got to share with our community, our partners, and friends, along with the rest of the world, something I’ve been working on for a long time — a new partnership with Ecolab. The Ecolab Foundation granted $5 million to the University of Minnesota, and all of it to sustainability. This gift brings new resources and opportunity to Institute on the Environment’s mission and work – and it is the single-largest gift the Ecolab Foundation has ever made to the University.

Over the next six years, the Ecolab gift will make environmental education and immersive learning experiences more accessible and affordable for diverse and talented undergraduates from across the University. It will support dozens of these Ecolab Scholars who will pursue degrees in sustainability fields and have unique experiences learning about sustainability first hand, in study abroad, real-world projects and internships.

The gift will also launch a biennial conference, convening global leaders from business and academia and inviting collaboration. (As Ecolab CEO Doug Baker reminded us in his announcement remarks, collaboration is where good ideas come from.)

And the gift endows the first chair of the Institute on the Environment. An endowment provides resources to IonE every year in perpetuity, providing new funds that we can direct to strategic initiatives (such as our new Impact Goals!), growing our impact and staying on the cutting edge of engaged, interdisciplinary scholarship. The chair will be valuable in recruiting future leaders of IonE too. I’m the leader today, but I won’t always be. We must plan for a healthy institute in the long-term, and I’m grateful that Ecolab is helping us do that.

That IonE could play an essential role in bringing this gift to the University — and is a primary beneficiary — is a testament to the work we do at IonE and how we do it. Through this gift, Ecolab endorsed the profound need for new ideas and new leaders to address sustainability challenges, and it recognized that the best ideas come from people working across fields and ways of knowing, building a future that is better than the one we have today.

This gift also signals the Ecolab Foundation’s recognition that the University of Minnesota is *the* place to make substantial, impactful strides in sustainability. Not only does Minnesota have unique assets including IonE (one of the first university-wide environmental institutes in the country), but also our university serves a state where innovation and independent-thinking dominate — a place that has inspired others and transformed the globe before. Ecolab knows that we are the people who can make sustainability happen — and are already.

Earlier this month, we spent a morning celebrating this gift and the partnership it implies. It was inspiring to see our building’s atrium filled with people who share a drive to change the world. Even Goldy Gopher joined us.

Of course, Ecolab is not the only behind-the-scenes thing that’s happened this year. We made a bunch of organizational adjustments at IonE this year, to leverage our role within the University and the state, serve our growing community, and increase our real-world reach and impact. Our new organizational design focuses on and incentivizes the pursuit of cutting-edge research that brings diverse people together to move the needle on sustainability; the creation of human capital with the knowledge and leadership skills needed to put sustainability into practice; and the production of storytelling that informs and inspires the public while experimenting with storytelling itself. And we are in the process of hiring two new associate directors, who will bring new life and capability to IonE in 2019.

While I feel pride that IonE is headed in a good direction (as an advisor and friend of mine recently said: “I like where we are, but I love where are going”), I know that the world around us is filled with environmental injustices and conflict over basic scientific facts. It’s hard to read the paper some days. I believe 2018 will go down in history as a particularly tumultuous one, when we went backward (nationally at least) on environmental issues that affect lives and livelihoods.

But these realities make it all the more important to have been part of something positive this year. The hardest work is ahead of us; the timeline for achieving it has never been clearer. The coming year is likely to be tumultuous too, but I know that in the corner of the world where I toil — and the people of goodwill that I toil with — there will be much to be grateful in 2019 too. Our call is to scale that great work from our institute, our university, and our state to elsewhere around the globe: “in Minnesota for the world.”

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. Let’s start 2019 off right by adopting five financial incentives to revive the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and Mississippi basin soils, a new paper emerging from our Wicked Econ program — lock scientists and economists in a room with a problem and see what they come up. The program is collaborative with the Nature Conservancy and our paper was just published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *