A ‘human-focused approach’ to sustainability

Sustainability Director Nina Morris, who started at Penn in October, aims to build on the University’s strengths in creating a more sustainable campus and community.

Nina Morris against the backdrop of an urban farm
Nina Morris, Penn's sustainability director, hopes to engage more members of the campus community by “meeting people where they are, showing up to support them and their interests, and then finding out how their passions connect to sustainability.”

It was during a pilgrimage in Spain during her college years that Nina Morris felt drawn to the field of sustainability. Now, as the sustainability director at Penn, she aims to help others identify their own ways to connect with the pursuit of a more sustainable world.

Morris assumed her role in October after a decade-long tenure at the University of Virginia. She comes on board as Penn expands its commitment to further sustainability and climate action goals. During the last year this has included a solar power purchase agreement, an expansion of the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative, and a greenhouse gas emissions net-zero goal for the endowment. 

On the cusp of a suite of Earth Week events (see below) organized by her office and campus partners, Penn Today spoke with Morris about her background, what Penn is doing well when it comes to sustainability, and her priorities as she settles into the job.

Can you share a little about your background and how you became interested in sustainability?

As an undergraduate, I was a double major in Spanish and religious studies and was studying abroad in Spain when I did a Catholic pilgrimage called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It’s an ancient pilgrimage where you walk from rural to suburban and urban areas and you get to really see the connections between people and place. For me that was an epiphany moment of seeing how people connect with their environment and how we can do that in a more conscious way. That was my awakening to the idea of sustainability, and it came from more of a personal, a more human-focused approach to sustainability instead of from an environmental perspective.

I was finishing up the Camino, and I realized that sustainability was a space I wanted to explore more. I landed at Temple’s City and Regional Planning and Community Development Program where they have a Center for Sustainable Communities, so I got to shape my graduate work around sustainability and people’s connection to place. That really helped solidify my passion for understanding how communities can become sustainable: What are the decisions we need to make as people to center our environment and ourselves in our decision making?

Then I was lucky to land a great internship working with PIDC [Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation], working on their first sustainability plan for the Navy Yard. And from there I joined the University of Virginia as their sustainability coordinator and then to manager in their Office for Sustainability. Working there for 10 years, I got to hone my experience and skills working across the campus, understanding the complexities of sustainability in higher education and how to connect to a community beyond the campus.

What made the position at Penn attractive?

I had really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia and the chance to work at the scale of Penn and in the larger Philadelphia community drew me to this opportunity. Thinking about the responsibility and impact Penn has in Philadelphia was very exciting to me. I wanted to do the job in a way that was respectful and responsible to the needs of our community.

If you think about it, we’re an important player in a larger ecosystem. So we need to think about our impact in that larger ecosystem and what can we do to make sure that we’re conscious of that impact and our relationship to others.

From your perspective, what is Penn doing well on sustainability?

There is a lot. Campus operations and the commitment to carbon neutrality by 2042 and the progress being made toward that goal is really impressive. To me that shows not only the ability to see the big picture but also to act within the moment. Penn has already reduced greenhouse gases by 37% and then also just recently signed the solar power purchase agreement so that 75% of Penn’s (University and Health System) carbon footprint will be offset, beginning in 2023.

The fact that we’re going to be able to reduce Penn’s greenhouse gas emissions so significantly, so quickly, six years ahead of the Paris Climate Agreement schedule; this exceeds their goal, which is a 45% reduction.This showed me this is a community that really takes sustainability seriously and that students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike understand the challenges and urgency behind climate change. I’ve been so impressed by every person I’ve talked to. The knowledge and commitment to sustainability is palpable.

Also, I want to call out Business Services’ work on embedding sustainability into procurement process as well as their leadership in economic inclusion efforts working with the Procurement Services team. I have seen so many innovative ways that Penn is making different decisions to encourage a local, sustainable economy through efforts like their new catering website to air travel carbon offsets to auto-replacing unsustainable products for greener ones; their team is always looking for ways to be a better partner in our community.

Earlier this month University leadership announced a commitment to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions from Penn’s endowment investments to zero by 2050. What are your thoughts on this goal, and is your office going to be involved in reaching it?

The Office of Investments recently understands that they have a responsibility when it comes to climate change. And I think their announcement to have a net-zero endowment is really a great step in the right direction. There’s a lot that goes into managing and accounting for greenhouse gas emissions and I look forward to collaborating with Chief Investment Officer Peter Ammon and his team to figure out how to do that.

Our office was in a similar position not that long ago, figuring out how to wrap our arms around our campus waste footprint and our campus carbon footprint. So I know the challenges of reporting, tracking, and making difficult decisions when it comes to these issues. It’s no easy feat, but I think the fact that they’re willing to take it on is really impressive, and they’re in a great community to help them do that.

Are there specific new initiatives that you’re planning to introduce?

I’m most excited by new partnerships and seeing how we can co-create the new initiatives that are going to take Penn into the next era of sustainability. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of different groups on campus, such as the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Business Services, and the Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC). The ESAC has an air travel working group that involves a cross-University collaboration to try to figure out how best to track and measure Penn’s air travel footprint so that we can offset it. We are also exploring local options to offset those carbon emissions.

Also, it’s been fantastic to work with Melissa Goodall—senior director for Environmental Innovations Initiative (EII). Applied learning is one of the deepest forms of engagement, and I look forward to imagining how Penn can be transformative in as many ways as possible.

You mentioned that many people in the Penn community are highly motivated when it comes to sustainability, but how do you work to engage more people, both on campus and beyond, who may not be naturally drawn to this work?

For me the strategy is kind of simple. It’s meeting people where they are, showing up to support them and their interests, and then finding out how their passions connect to sustainability. I think to do that well it helps to come from a place of intellectual humility and vulnerability. We’ve never had to solve climate change before; the solutions don’t exist in one person. They exist across our community.

A good example is how Penn Sustainability and EII and CIRCE, the Faculty Senate’s Committee on an Institutional Response to the Climate Emergency, and the Student Sustainability Association at Penn—collaboration all across these organizations. The leadership is working together on Climate Week at Penn for 2021, coming up in September. We’re taking an intentional approach to how we’re talking about climate so that people feel welcomed.

Of course, there’s also Earth Week where we hope people can get engaged, people can get involved through the Eco-Reps program, both for staff and students, and we also have internships in our office. I encourage folks to go to our website and find a way to see themselves fitting in, and they can always reach out to our office with any ideas they’d like to explore.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on sustainability and how you work?

It’s definitely impacted sustainability both in good ways and in more challenging ways. I think everyone has been aware that, by not traveling so much and by doing more work remotely, there is this inevitable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But there is also an emotional toll. So it’s not like it’s a win for sustainability by any stretch of the imagination. However, it does help us reimagine what we want to prioritize, how we can think differently about the decisions we can make, both at a personal scale and as an institution, which is always healthy.

I also think that COVID-19 has allowed us to understand the importance of collaboration to address big challenges. I think it has just reinforced how important it is to look to each other to move forward. Because no one person has the answer to climate change just like no one person has an answer for COVID-19; we all have to figure that out together.

Nina Morris is sustainability director in the University of Pennsylvania Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services.

Learn more about the Sustainability Office on its website, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Nina Morris amid flowering trees

Earth Week 2021

The Sustainability Office is organizing a variety of events for Earth Week, both in-person and virtual. A selection: 

Throughout the week: Virtual Earth Day 5k

Monday, April 19, at noon: Yoga on Shoemaker Green

Tuesday, April 20, at noon: Green Labs Working Group Meeting

Wednesday, April 21, at noon: Penn Park Farm Tour

Thursday, April 22, at noon: Campus Ecology Tour

Friday, April 23, at 2 p.m.: Water Center Graduate Student Showcase

Saturday, April 24, at 11 a.m.: West Philadelphia Cleanup

The full list of Earth Week events and registration information is available on the Penn Sustainability website.