Retiring O’Brien Reflects on Sustainability at the University of Minnesota
With a shelf of construction helmets lining the wall and stacks of paper filling her Morrill Hall office, Vice President of University Services Kathleen O’Brien prepared for her retirement from the University of Minnesota with a list of successes under her belt. As a member of the University community for nearly four decades, O’Brien has had a large influence on many of the changes that have occurred at the University. However, some of her most notable influences and accomplishments come in the area of promoting sustainability in campus operations.
Kathleen O’Brien has served as one of the foremost sustainability leaders in the community for over 30 years. As a University of Minnesota Graduate student in the 1970’s, anti-war protests were all over the news, the women’s movement was in full force, but what interested O’Brien was the advocacy for the environment. Since this time, O’Brien has been dedicated to sustainability both in her personal life and in the workplace.
From graduate school at the U, O’Brien spent a few years teaching history before she went on to serve in the Minneapolis City Council from 1982 to 1989. She represented the University’s ward, always keeping in close contact with her school. O’Brien then held the position as Chief of Staff at the University of Minnesota under President Nils Hasselmo for five years. Returning to her role in the city, she gained the position as the City Coordinator of Minneapolis where she oversaw the expansion of the Convention Center and the planning of the new Minneapolis Library. She said that being an “executive of a big project” in the city helped her to make big changes in the University, including the construction of TCF Bank Stadium.
Being the Vice President of University Services is a huge job, but as O’Brien sees it, “my role is being an advocate and promoting sustainability in operations management.” In her ten years as vice president she has helped to create an ID program for bikes, subsidized public transit for students and faculty, and worked with the “It All Adds Up” campaign. She also played a major role in the opening of the Rochester U of M campus, the development of the Twin Cities’ light rail transit system, and the construction of the TCF Bank Stadium.
Sustainability to O’Brien is not only focused on environmental friendliness, but also dedication to improving society in general. She remembers standing outside in the cold on January 30, 2008 when the first steel beam of the stadium went up. She was amazed with the swiftness of the assembly- transforming the area from a surface parking lot to a central piece of campus. When building the stadium, O’Brien asked, “What else does it have to serve?” The students were the most important because without them, the University could not function. The visitors were also very important, but O’Brien found ways to involve the surrounding community as well. The University set up a hiring campaign for women and minorities, and forty-two percent of the construction team came from Minneapolis or St. Paul. In the end, University Services triumphed as the stadium received the LEED Silver award. TCF Bank Stadium is the first LEED Certified collegiate or professional football facility in the country.
Throughout her time at the University, O’Brien has been inspired by the hard work that she sees from the students and staff. She wants everyone to know that the University is a great resource for learning about sustainability and finding ways to implement ideas. “A lot of people think, ‘I want to do the right thing,’ but they don’t look at the goals. They don’t ask ‘How do I get there?’” O’Brien believes that the University of Minnesota is the right place for carrying out these goals, and that the University can encourage student participation by teaching them “why to do the right thing.” O’Brien explained that when students can understand why their work is important and how they are influencing the world, they only become more passionate in their work.
When asked about the future of sustainability at the University, O’Brien did not speak of green buildings, new technology, or more recycling. What she envisioned is that “everyone is a sustainability leader, and when they leave the institution they carry that with them.” The University has a great opportunity to serve as a paradigm for sustainability, but none of this could occur without the dedicated staff, students, and community members. And as these people pursue other interests outside of the U, they should remember their responsibility to teach others about sustainability and conscious environmental practices. And along with that mentality comes “spreading the idea ‘we want to change the world.’”
Even though Vice President O’Brien is retiring, she isn’t leaving the University of Minnesota quite yet. She plans on staying involved with the University and the broader community as much as she can. But more importantly, she is continuing the education she has advocated for so long. She’s already enrolled in some geology courses for the fall. Who knows, maybe she’ll be in your next class!