Interview with Todd Spinks, UNT Sustainability Director

Under the direction of current UNT president, Gretchen Bataille, the campus is noticeably evolving.  The landscaping trends towards low-water use and native plants, new buildings are planned out with sustainable goals in mind, and transit expands beyond the mere trickle of buses in years past.  In February of this year, UNT recruited Todd Spinks, a former EPA official and UNT alum, to head a new Sustainability department.  BikeDenton sought this interview with Todd to profile his job and get a feeling what changes lie ahead for UNT.

How would you describe the state of sustainability when you arrived at UNT?

In 2010, UNT will celebrate its 75th year as an environmental steward. Indeed, since 1935, the university has had a very proactive position in lessening its impact on the environment. As such, it was no surprise to find all types of activities related to sustainability going on when I arrived. However, I was very surprised to find the high number of activities that were taking place, from the individual level to the organizational level.

Because the President took such a progressive move, establishing an independent Office of Sustainability, UNT will now have the capacity to bring cohesion to all of the efforts related to sustainability, consequently, increasing its ability to affect change on campus and abroad.

What are some sustainability initiatives you expect UNT to implement, and over what timeline will they be implemented?

UNT has already begun to implement many projects and will continue to put forth a number of efforts in a variety of areas, to include:

  • UNT’s President signed the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)
    • Commitment to move UNT toward reaching carbon neutrality
  • Completed a full Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Inventory
    • 90% of UNT’s emissions come from the energy we use and from our commuting habits.
  • Currently drafting a Climate Action Plan
    • Will present project recommendations to the President to lessen environmental impact. The recommendations will be assessed by the President and upon her decision, certain projects will be implemented.
  • All new construction will meet LEED Silver standards. The buildings mentioned below will be completed within the next two to three years.
    • Life Sciences Building (LEED Silver)
    • Business Building (LEED Platinum)
    • Athletic Stadium (LEED Gold)
    • General Academic Building (Dallas Campus, LEED Gold)
  • Development of bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in sustainability
    • The bachelor’s and master’s degrees are intended to be launched within the next two years.
      • They will emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability and will be very applied.
  • Establish a Tree Policy
    • This goes into effect this summer. According to the policy, no tree can be removed without my approval.
  • University Operations
    • The Office of Sustainability is working with numerous programs across campus to increase environmental awareness and implement efforts that will lessen UNT’s impact on the planet. Many other initiatives will be instituted once the President has approved the recommendations.

Does cycling fit into the sustainability initiatives, and if so, how?

Cycling is an extremely important activity supported by the Office. As mentioned above, a significant percentage of UNT’s emissions come from our commuters. Many of these commuters live near campus. An increase in cycling would therefore decrease our emissions level. Accordingly, the Office is working with other members of the UNT family as well as the City of Denton to promote increased cycling on and around campus.

We love the massive expansion of bicycle racks on campus. It seems like more and more people are riding near campus. Do you have any statistics to show if cycling ridership at UNT is increasing?

The Office of Sustainability is accumulating data on this. However, you might contact UNT’s police department. They may have some stats for you on this.

Employees and students often express frustration with parking at UNT, and driving and parking costs have been steadily increasing. The environmental and health benefits of cycling and walking are numerous.  Can cycling and walking help alleviate parking frustration at UNT, and should UNT promote cycling and walking?

As stated above, increased cycling would support UNT’s efforts to decrease its emissions. It would indeed also positively impact the parking conditions on campus. The Office fully supports cycling and walking to and from campus.

The DCTA A-train will soon provide service to downtown Denton. Do you anticipate that many students will use this, and do you think that the train is part of a greater multi-modal transit evolution in Denton?

The A-Train link will be invaluable in assisting those who commute from the Dallas area to UNT. The benefits are obvious and numerous. I do believe many students will initially utilize the A-Train, but like any other major initiative, efforts must be taken to ensure the benefits are highly visible. In addition, all stakeholders will need to continuously assess the use to ensure that the service and individual activities that are associated with its use are kept convenient in order to promote a culture shift. The hope here is that, if effective, UNT and its partners can impact behavior in a positive way.

UNT has some great talent in the environmental disciplines. Are these folks from the academic side being connected with administrative and logistical (i.e. facilities) staff to work towards sustainability goals?

One of the primary objectives of the Office of Sustainability is to bring cohesion in all that UNT is doing in sustainability. This is an area that is very important to me personally and I believe the result of a coordinated, cohesive focus on moving the institution toward its goal will increase the likelihood of us getting there. Indeed, UNT has much to offer, and over the next couple of years the university will be better able to leverage all of its intellectual and professional assets to address environmental challenges here in the region as well as across the globe.

Which other universities might you look to as models of sustainability, and why?

There are a number of universities around the nation, and world that are implementing substantive policies and programs to address environmental concerns. The Office of Sustainability has recently completed an analysis of all of the schools around the country that are currently putting forth such efforts. The interesting discovery that we have found, is that UNT is quite unique in that, not only is it incorporating sustainability in everything it does, but it is consciously addressing the three fundamental areas at the same time. That is, whether in research, daily operations, outreach efforts, or the educational programs UNT offers, the institution is considering concerns related to society, the environment, and the economy. UNT is quickly rising as a global leader in this regard.

Many of the projects you’re involved in will likely address large-scale institutional inefficiencies. What can individual UNT employees do to help UNT become more sustainable?

The Office of Sustainability will launch an initiative this fall. It is called the “We Mean Green Challenge”. Essentially, the Office will ask departments to identify activities they can put forth to become more environmentally friendly. They will then pledge to enact these efforts and allow themselves to be audited by students. Consequently, this will ensure that the programs and departments are all held accountable to the student body, not a particular office. This is quite logical as it is really the students’ university and so therefore we would like the students to help us guide it into the future.  As departments and programs become increasingly more “green,” they will receive recognition for the level of “greenness” that they are putting forth. When they reach the highest level, or the We Mean Green level, they will be allowed to exhibit their office/program name along with the new We Mean Green logo.

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One thought on “Interview with Todd Spinks, UNT Sustainability Director

  1. lil' J says:

    Noice! I was actually interviewed by someone from the office of Sustainability who was trying to gauge students’ knowledge of the department

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