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Lisa McNeilly MPP *94

Meet Lisa McNeilly MPP *94, UC Berkeley Director of Sustainability by Larry Chang '85


A former regional program director for the Nature Conservancy, Lisa is now UC Berkeley's first director of sustainability. In this role, she supports and coordinates various university groups and programs aimed at environmental awareness and stewardship. In addition, she will initiate and manage an Office of Sustainability which will enhance a campus-wide culture of sustainability while lessening the environmental impact of daily operations.

A graduate in mathematics from Davidson, Lisa earned a Master's in Public Policy from Princeton in 1994. Later, she served as special assistant to the White House Climate Change Task Force and then acted as sustainability manager for a major vendor at Grand Canyon National Park

How did you, a math major, end up at Princeton? What made you choose Princeton over other grad schools?

After graduating from Davidson, I began working on international development issues in Africa. This led to graduate studies, and Princeton offered me a full scholarship to study at the Woodrow Wilson School. My entry into environmentalism and the public sector occurred during a summer internship at the White House Office of Environmental Policy. Although the internship was unpaid, the Wilson School provided a stipend, part of the financial assistance which allowed its students to gain such valuable opportunities.

When and how did your passion for the environment develop into a career path?

As a result of that internship, I furthered my experience on climate change policy at the White House Climate Change Task Force and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. However, I then joined the private sector to manage sustainable practices for a concessioner which operated a lodging facility at the Grand Canyon; basically, it was a kind of "creative monopoly" whereby the company returned some of its profits to the National Park Service in return for the rights to provide visitor services. Eventually, I joined the Nature Conservancy (in Flagstaff), whose mission is to protect lands and waters often through land acquisition. We also worked with Federal agencies to manage forest growth.

What are your responsibilities and initial tasks as UC Berkeley's first director of sustainability?

Of course, I'm in lots of meetings just getting acquainted with the campus, students, faculty and staff. The Chancellor would like to reach the UC and state's CO2 emission reduction goal 6 years ahead of schedule; part of my job will be to help connect different parties on campus and act as a clearing house for information on campus activities. In partnership with PG&E, we'll also pursue reductions in energy use, one of our primary goals since electricity and steam represent over 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, a good deal of energy is spent on cooling computer servers; instead of cooling an entire space, we'll try to place vents closer to the machines needing that kind of temperature control.

What skills do you draw upon most frequently in your daily work? What are your most significant challenges? Will you be teaching?

The Woodrow Wilson School made sure that its students learned to write well, and writing is a vital component in my daily work, whether editing policy statements or addressing other groups. Speaking of which, managing group dynamics is also critical, particularly in larger organizations such as universities where you are dealing with a variety of stakeholders including faculty, students, and staff. As for teaching, no, I don't expect to be involved in regular coursework, although I may be asked to guest lecture or participate in some of the student-led classes.

What educational and professional credentials might provide a foundation for careers in sustainability? Is an MPA or MBA important to have? Non-profit experience?

Depending on career specifics, I don't think an MPA or MBA are necessary prerequisites, especially for practicing as a generalist in sustainability. This is a multidisciplinary field, and it's quite possible to have a varied background in both for-profit and non-profit sectors. There are a number of potential routes, again depending on where the work is done.

How might such jobs in sustainability vary between private vs. public sector?

Both private and public sectors can often work towards similar goals. As you might expect, though, the public sector (e.g., cities or states) can utilize more regulatory tools, but have a less direct impact on individuals' emissions. The public policy, though, is also where the ground rules are set - the policies that can really influence or even create markets for good environmental practices or products. Meanwhile, the private side, where I've spent much of my time, can use the inherent focus on the bottom line to have an immediate impact on internal emissions and impacts (e.g., reducing emissions from a factory) and potentially on a larger portion of the population through sales of environmentally-friendly products.


The American ecological movement of the '70s appeared to be gaining some momentum, then fell by the wayside. What might have caused that, and how can it be avoided this time?

There's been a debate regarding the "death of environmentalism" - I've never believed those reports. However, there is great opportunity now with growing awareness about climate change and other issues, and it is incumbent upon environmental groups to provide solutions and give the public something to grab onto. There are so many specialties on different aspects of the environmental scene and thus, lots of ways to address pent-up demand for these solutions.

How did "big business", which often has been at odds with environmental activism, now come to embrace sustainability?

I think there are many reasons. Some business leaders had a strong personal interest in environmentalism and brought sustainability into their companies. There are also now many incentives such as cost savings, and some companies are implementing projects for these savings alone. No doubt, there might be a bit of "green-washing", too. Sustainability can be part of every decision we make, but the private sector can help focus those choices and create new standards of business and environmental partnership.

What is your opinion of carbon offsets? Is this a kind of "atonement" which only moves greenhouse gas reduction responsibility from one part of the planet to another?

Since there are sometimes limits to what any one organization or person can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, offsets were created as an alternative - a way to support someone else's reduction project. To make up for emissions, offsets help others reduce their CO2 in a way they could not have done otherwise. Some offsets programs are probably better than others. For instance, the purchase of offsets from Native Energy (see www.nativeenergy.com) supports the creation of renewable energy projects on Native American reservations.

What persons have been inspirations in your life and work? Any instructors at Princeton?

At Princeton, there were a number. Dan Kammen, a former assistant professor and one of my instructors at the Wilson School, now teaches here at Cal and is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab. Also, some of you might have heard of Dr. Robert Socolow (Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) who is one of the leaders in climate change research. Finally, Prof. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and Professor of Psychology (Emeritus), taught a fascinating class that combined psychology and microeconomics.

Is this your first time living in the Bay area? Are there any things that have surprised you, either positively or negatively?

Yes, I'm new here and living in Walnut Creek for now. I've been struck by the friendliness of the people, especially for such an urban context. For instance, I recently saw a stranger help another person pick up a set of keys. That might seem like a minor gesture, but it definitely makes an impression.

About the contributor

Larry Chang '85 graduated with a BSE in Architecture & Engineering and is an Oakland-based architect with his own practice. When he's not at the drawing boards or checking out new green building materials, he enjoys writing as a hobby and hiking with the Princeton Club.

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