Despite its location in College Station, Texas — a very conservative area in a red (aka conservative) where support for climate action is not strong, Texas A&M University has been a leader among US academic institutions in sports sustainability.
Athletics, the university’s highest profile department, took the green baton with last month’s issuance of its comprehensive, substantive Athletics Sustainability Master Plan (ASMP), the first athletics department in the country to do so. The document serves as a playbook that will help athletics support the university as it works to achieve goals set forth in its 2018 Campus Sustainability Master Plan over the next decade and beyond.
To get a sense of how the Master Plan progressed from idea to reality, to understand what’s in it and what’s not, GSB spoke to three people who were deeply involved in its development:
* Lead author Lauren Lichterman, a collegiate sports sustainability engagement expert and a former A&M grad student.
* Rebekah Parkhill, associate athletic director of engagement. She oversees the department’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and more.
* Kelly Wellman, director of the university’s sustainability office
THE ATHLETICS SUSTAINABILITY MASTER PLAN’S GENESIS & RATIONALE
The germ of the idea that would become Texas A&M’s Athletics Sustainability Master Plan (ASMP) began to sprout in 2016.
“Stephanie Rempe, then a deputy athletic director here and now the AD at the University of Nevada, said ‘we’ve got to do something on sustainability’,” Parkhill recalled. “Scot Obergefell, now our associate athletics director, and I eventually took the baton on this once Stephanie left.”
Texas A&M sustainability director Wellman interjected, “Then this grad student, Lauren Lichterman reached out to me and said she was interested in and had the passion to help to bring sustainability to athletics. It was like the gates to the athletics department’s Sustainability Master Plan opened up! Winning a grant from the Texas A&M’s Aggie Green Fund in the spring of 2021 to pay for Lauren’s work for 18 months put the Athletics Sustainability Master Plan’s development into motion.”
The plan’s architects — Lichterman, Parkhill, Wellman, Obergefell along with facilities director David Taylor — were firm in the belief that a standalone Athletics Sustainability Master Plan was a necessity.
“Most universities have an overall climate action plan, with athletics contributing chapters to those plans,” noted Lichterman. “We felt strongly that, at Texas A&M, in a part of the country where sustainability is not nearly as endemic as in, say, Boulder, Colorado, athletics needed its own plan. To show that it takes sustainability seriously. So we decided to that athletics needs to publicly codify sustainability commitments for the short-term and to make sure that those commitments get stronger in the longer term.”
The Texas A&M ASMP architects, from left to right: Rebekah Parkhill, Kelly Wellman, David Taylor, Lauren Lichterman, and Scot Obergefell
WHAT’S IN THE ASMP
Since June 2021, a task force of more than 50 staff members from the Texas A&M Athletics Sustainability Plan working group collaborated to develop the plan under Lichterman’s guidance. The result is the 101-page ASMP that lays out four key focus areas: Physical Environment, Waste Management, Social Sustainability, and Institutional Efforts. Within those focus areas live 12 Key Themes and those are divided even further into Evergreen Goals.
Some of the Evergreen Goals are very specific; others are much more generic in nature (i.e. ‘Align sustainability staffing and funding to the depth and breadth of work being done’). Lack of specificity and the uncertainty that goes with it could drag down the Plan’s potential positive impacts. To counter that, the team worked hard to drill down even further by breaking down the Evergreen Goals into concrete Targets, Metrics, and Actions.
For example, in Theme #2/Mobility & Transportation, one Evergreen Goal is to operate a fleet that increases the use of advanced technology vehicles. Increase? By how much? The Plan, on page 33, offers specific medium and long term targets:
The ASMP then details how the athletics department can achieve these targets, in this case asserting that:
- Future athletics department contracts with sports fields maintenance contractors could encourage an electrified maintenance vehicle fleet.
- As fleet vehicles are purchased or replaced upon age-out, athletics will promote the purchase of alternatively fueled vehicles.
- [Athletics will] work with campus to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations near athletics facilities as the number of electric vehicles on campus increases.
The inclusion of Themes 8 (Voice and Influence) and 9 (Community Engagement) and the Evergreen Goals that go along with them deserves mention here. This demonstrates that Lichterman and team were well aware that the true power of athletics — and of student-athletes — lies in the ability to galvanize hundreds of thousands if not millions of fans.
WHAT’S NOT IN THE ASMP
Frequent mentions of “climate change”. Keeping that term largely on the sidelines was intentional and strategic.
“Sadly, climate change is still a hot button issue in our part of the country; that’s just the current reality,” offered Lichterman. “With that being the case, we were very cognizant of making the ASMP as inclusive as possible, to not alienate or condemn anyone. Instead, to bring along our donors, fans, and other stakeholders, we chose to emphasize solutions-oriented terms like ‘renewable energy’ and ‘greenhouse gas emission reductions’, and not to mention ‘climate change’ much. Since the ASMP is a living, breathing document — there will be an update every year — we believe that climate change will be a part of it sooner rather than later.”
GSB’s Take: Congratulations to Lichterman, Parkhill, Wellman, Obergefell, and Taylor for the publication of the Sustainability Master Plan (ASMP). It was a massive effort, and the result is a detailed, action oriented, ‘hold us accountable’ document.
When it comes to ‘climate change’, ASMP’s Fab Five’s decision against prominently featuring the term in the report makes perfect sense. They surveyed stakeholders and found climate change to still be a hot button issue That this is still the reality is profoundly sad, yet it sez here that the team made the only choice it could…at least for now.
GSB looks forward to talking with Lichterman & Company in the coming months to get a sense of what they think they and the Texas A&M family can do— if anything — to hasten the day when climate change can be used without hesitation in future ASMPs and in Aggie athletics more broadly.