Suzanne Savanik Hansen - Sustainability Manager at Macalester College

Suzanne Savanik Hansen - Sustainability Manager at Macalester College

Dr. Suzanne Savanick Hansen is the Sustainability Manager at Macalester College and teaches occasional courses for the Environmental Studies Program. She earned her PhD in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University, and a bachelor’s degree in geology from Carleton College.

She was the first paid sustainability staff person in the region when she started the Sustainable Campus Initiative at the University of Minnesota as a graduate student. She has co-organized three regional faculty development workshops focusing on sustainability in the curriculum. She also has significant faculty development experience through her work with the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College.

She often publishes academic articles on using the campus as a living laboratory and she originally started the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability. In addition, she has reviewed proposals for the National Science Foundation and recently wrote a commissioned paper for a National Academy of Sciences workshop.

Suzanne Joins Sustainable Nation to Discuss:

  • The early days of sustainability in higher education and the midwest

  • Climate action planning and joining the American College and University's Presidents Climate Commitment 

  • Embedding social aspects, including health and wellness, into sustainability strategies

  • Advice and recommendations for sustainability leaders

Suzanne's Final Five Question Responses:

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

I would say, take time to build relationships with people inside your organization that you're trying to change. A lot of people don't realize how important it to maintain the relationships with the people that you're working with. Sometimes they think, "Oh, this is a great idea. Of course everybody's going to be on board and of course this is the right thing to do." But I find that I actually have to spend a fair amount of time having coffee with the professors, with the study away office, with the department of multicultural life staff and I plan those out. Every once in a while I set up a coffee with someone who could be a potential collaborator with what I'm doing. That has made all the difference. When I haven't done it or I've gotten too busy. that's when you run into the internal politics issues. So if you can try to avoid that by realizing that setting up of the relationships is actually really important and keeping those relationships strong. Because you're not in every meeting but somebody else is and hopefully they'll remember that you should be in there if it's a meeting that would be appropriate for you. And that takes some time.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

We reworked our sustainability plan recently and we still have our numeric goals - climate neutrality by 2025 and our zero waste by 2020 and our 30 percent local organic and fair trade food. But we have three other non-numeric areas and one of them is sustainability education. Being able to help faculty get these into the classes is one of the areas that we're working on right now. But we also have a couple other areas that are pretty exciting for us. One is urban sustainability. That's one of our new topic areas in our sustainability plan. It's also in our college wide strategic plan. But as the world is becoming more urbanized, we really need to focus on urban sustainability. How are we going to, as a society, urbanize and do this sustainably? So it's really important. We're one of the few liberal arts colleges in a urban area, so it's a little niche for us. So it's one of our areas that we're beginning to focus on more directly right now. And then the other piece that we put in our sustainability plan is a focus on health and wellness. We took the standard Venn diagram that is used for sustainability with the social justice environment and economics. Well, we changed it a little bit. We got this from Bemidji State in Minnesota. They took a big circle and put it in the back of the three circles. And that's the environment because everything's based on the environment. And then we still have a circle for social justice and we still have a circle for economics. And we added a circle for health and wellness. And I find that my colleagues who are more social justice oriented really like this diagram because they can see the connection between social justice and health. So we're trying here to to collaborate with our health and wellness office and see if there's more things we can do in this area. We know we have mental health issue is on the rise and can we do anything about that? I know I have 19 year olds who were saying, "Uh, we're all screwed in climate change and there's nothing we can do about it." That's a problem. We have to get to the point so that we aren't expecting people to destroy their health in order to try to change the world to be more sustainable. So trying to take this, both for personal health standpoint, but also looking at these other connections between health and sustainability on the community scale and on the national and international scale. One other thing that's a little bit close to this too, is I see a lot more interest in the social justice aspects of sustainability. This is a new theme that I've seen in the last five years or so. Social justice has always been part of sustainability is part of the definition, but a lot of times we don't articulate it very well. But I see a lot more people trying to articulate this and trying to both articulate and do projects that combine the environment and the social justice aspects of sustainability.

What is one book you would recommend sustainability leaders read?

I really like The Nature of College by Jim Ferrell. The subtitle is - How a new understanding of college life can save the world. It's written by Jim Ferrell, who was a professor at Saint Olaf in Minnesota. He passed away a couple years ago, but he co-wrote this book with his students. And when you read this book, you never look at the dining hall or any other aspect of campus life, the same ever again. He's really good at pulling out the environment and the social aspects of sustainability and how college culture is really a subset of American culture. Once you know that, you can really see how we need to work on our culture. So it's a really good book. I love it. I use it in my class all the time. 

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that help you in your work?

We've already mentioned STARS. That's the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education program. It's a pain to do, but it's really a good tool. I like that one a lot. The International Society for Sustainability Professionals also has a set of really good webinar classes. They're not set up for higher ed specifically, mostly for businesses, but some of their tools are very good. They have all sorts of stuff. They even have a database of tools. So if you're a member of their organization and you're looking for some kind of tool, there's a database that will tell you what options you have. So that was really quite good. There's a listserv that a lot of the sustainability professionals in higher ed are on, called the Green Schools Listserv. It started out of Brown University and it is still going quite strong. That one is great for putting out a call for, "Hey, has anybody ever had this problem? Does anybody know?" Examples of speakers that came up recently or recycling programs. I put something on there recently about sustainability certificate programs and diploma programs and where can you find out what the curriculum are. You get really great responses on that list. That's the wisdom of the hive.

Where can our listeners go to learn more about you and the work that you're leading at Macalester college?

Our website is the best one and that's And we have lots of things on our website. The sustainability office also has a Facebook page too and you can search and find us on there. And we try to put our news and things on there too.