The Women Leaders of Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute

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March 8, 2019

By Olivia Smith

International Women's Day, held annually March 8, celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while marking a call to action to accelerate gender parity.

Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute, which integrates, supports and leads sustainability across the university, is distinctive in that it is co-led by two females: Kate Bartter, executive director and Elena Irwin, faulty director.

The January launch of the Sustainability Institute concluded two years of effort that included 85 meetings with key faculty and research leaders, administrators and many others; approval from the provost, college deans, multiple department chairs, and the offices of Student Life and Administration and Planning; and development of a 150-page proposal to the University Senate for approval.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Better the balance, better the world,” referring to gender balance.

“Gender-balanced organizations bring new ideas, experiences, energy and creativity. They are essential for innovation,” Irwin says. “Research shows a 30 percent tipping point: with 30 percent women in the room, the conversation shifts. We are committed to shifting the conversation at Ohio State.”

Kate Bartter

In her position as executive director of the Sustainability Institute, Kate Bartter oversees the Institute’s strategic goals, “keeping all the trains running” toward hitting goal milestones.

“Leadership requires bringing people together to get things done,” Bartter says. “Women are good at that.  When it comes to solving sustainability challenges, bringing people with different skills and backgrounds together is an absolute necessity.”

She manages university sustainability initiatives such as the academic collaboration component of the Comprehensive Energy Management Project and builds effective external sustainability partnerships. In addition, she represents the Office of Academic Affairs on key sustainability commitments such as the Energy Academic Collaboration Council and the President and Provost’s Council on Sustainability. Bartter coordinates efforts on university sustainability initiatives and partnerships with senior leaders in university departments including Administration and Planning, Business and Finance and Student Life. She also serves on Ohio State’s Government Affairs team.

Bartter’s favorite facet of her position is the ability to work with students.

“I believe today’s bright students — who believe anything is possible — are really going to solve our sustainability challenges,” she says. “Many challenges in sustainability are global. If we at Ohio State have the ability to develop solutions to these challenges, we can help not only our own community but the world.”  

Bartter calls her current role the pinnacle of her career, allowing for the culmination of all her past work experiences. She has worked in environmental policy for over 30 years in positions at the Office of the Governor, Ohio General Assembly and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. When she leaves the Sustainability Institute, her plans are to read more books, write and open a lavender farm in central Ohio.

Advice she would give her younger self: “Don’t be such a worrier; you can worry constructively or you can worry destructively. Do not work too much when you can enjoy being in your 20s and 30s; just work hard, and the future will work itself out.”

Her biggest career influencer was Sam Speck, former director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Muskingum University president, and member of the Ohio General Assembly, who worked in high levels of government and received a doctorate degree from Harvard University.

“Because of his intelligence and strategic abilities, I learned more from him than anyone else in my career,” Bartter says. “He taught me show to think strategically and how to treat people.  He had a wonderful way of inspiring people to work hard, and he did it with humor.”

Elena Irwin

In her position as Sustainability Institute faculty director, Elena Irwin provides leadership to sustainability research and teaching at Ohio State. She steers the strategic direction of the institute, which includes campus-wide collaborative research and curriculum development efforts and partnerships with academic units to recruit and mentor Sustainability Institute core faculty members. She also works with faculty and Sustainability Institute staff to develop partnerships and external funding opportunities in the institute’s key research program areas.

“I love creating exciting new opportunities for research, and teaching in ways that bring people together and create something that couldn’t have been created otherwise,” Irwin says. She also is very mission-driven and has always wanted to make a difference in the world, especially for the environment and people. This position allows her to grow her passion in creative ways that are impactful and make a difference.

The Sustainability Institute has enhanced her opportunities for being a leader at the university and more broadly as a sustainability leader nationally and internationally. She made a conscious decision to go in this direction when she took on her leadership position as director of the Sustainable and Resilient Economy Discovery Theme Program, which merged with the Office of Energy and Environment to form the Sustainability Institute.

Her advice to her younger self:  “Believe in yourself, follow your passion, don’t listen to the gremlins in your head, and go for it. You won’t succeed in all that you want to do, but you will be wildly successful.” 

Her biggest influence came to her after she graduated from Washington University with a double major in history and German. She started thinking about what she was truly interested in and passionate about.  Growing up in West Virginia, the environment had always been one of those things. She started reading Herman Daly, former senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, who wrote “Steady-State Economics” and co-authored “For the Common Good.”

“Those books, which clearly stated the fundamental interdependencies of the environment and economy,” she says, “had a big influence on my evolution as an environmental scholar and changed the trajectory of my career.”

Olivia Smith is a student communications assistant at the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State.