Campus Conversations

By Emma Jonas ’15

How do you bring an institutional statement — “Not unto ourselves alone are we born” — to life? At Willamette, you see that value alive and flourishing in the university’s sustainability program, now a focal point in shaping other programs and operations.

At the start of the 2013–14 academic year, Willamette incorporated the former Center for Sustainable Communities, WU Sustainability Council and the Zena Advisory Committee into the Sustainability Institute, directed by Joe Abraham, an Oregon native and former director of sustainability at the University of Arizona. The institute functions to create a more robust sustainability profile in curricular and co-curricular practices at Willamette.

Abraham has spent much of his first year on the job observing and learning, largely through one-on-one meetings with students, staff, administrators and faculty, but also through a campus-wide assessment of academics, operations, administration and engagement.

The Scene recently interviewed Abraham to learn a little more about those opportunities and his vision.

What are some differences and similarities between Willamette and Arizona?

Coming to a small liberal arts school in Oregon has required that I shift my strategies. I was used to a very different model of higher education. The University of Arizona is a very large research university, and I was there for almost 14 years, the last four as director of sustainability. Like Arizona, Willamette is very progressive in sustainability but approaches it more holistically, which I’m excited to see. There is also much greater potential here to meaningfully engage students, faculty and staff.

The new Sustainability Institute oversees Zena Forest and Farm. How do those resources interact with the institute?

The opportunity to help Willamette develop the Zena property was a big attraction for me. Zena was acquired in 2008, and the university is looking to the institute to lead an inclusive planning process that focuses on developing Zena’s curricular and co-curricular value. It’s an amazing asset with significant potential to serve Willamette’s educational mission broadly.

We already have a farm at Zena — largely student-run, but also supported by a staff member who works closely with me in the Sustainability Institute and who administers the six-week summer program in sustainable agriculture. I’ve started working with faculty, staff and students to identify ways to expand our use of Zena in the curriculum and for co-curricular activities. From there, we’ll develop a programmatic plan to determine what additional investments in Zena might fit in our capital campaign. We’re looking for ways to get more students out there and expand their perspectives.

What else do you hope to accomplish through the institute?

I’m interested in building more bridges between the university and businesses, nonprofits and government in Salem and the region. We were fortunate to receive a grant from the James S. Kemper Foundation this year and have created six paid summer internships for Willamette students at for-profits that are recognized leaders in sustainability in their fields. I hope to continue working with our career center and others to create more opportunities during the academic year to help students and our community.

How do you view sustainability institutes at other colleges, and how can Willamette contribute in conjunction with that progress?

There’s been a huge upswing in positions like mine in higher education in the last 10 years, focused on operations, academics and, to a lesser extent, campus life. Ten years ago, a university could distinguish itself by committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, putting up only green buildings and increasing its use of renewable energy. Now, many universities have those tools in their portfolios, so it’s no longer a differentiator.

I’m spending this year figuring out how sustainability can help Willamette further distinguish itself and improve our brand, in addition to working toward a more positive future on and off campus. As we incorporate sustainability into the curriculum and create co-curricular opportunities on and off campus, we need to think of sustainability in terms of marketing and communications.

Where does sustainability fit into Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born”?

It’s not just about recycling and renewable energy production and conservation. It plays into what I see on campus — service in the community, such as addressing poverty and hunger, social justice, wellness and other concerns that play into the broader issue of sustainable communities.

How do you hope the Sustainability Institute will serve Willamette students as they graduate?

We need to empower Willamette students to mesh their desire to make money and have the quality of life that they want with their desire to do good in the world. We need to help them understand how to become agents of change for the way that the companies and organizations they’ll join will operate and behave in the future.

Helping people become change agents is one of the experiences that makes my life exciting.


Joe Abraham, Director of the Sustainability Institute

“I’m interested in building more bridges between the university and businesses, nonprofits and government in Salem and the region.”