#108 Gary Cocke, Director of Sustainability at the University of Texas at Dallas

Gary has led the Office of Sustainability at UT Dallas since 2018 with previous sustainability experience in higher education and municipal government. He is responsible for facilitating the integration of sustainability into campus stewardship, student life, administration, and student learning. UTD, as well as universities across the nation and the world, track the effectiveness of sustainability programs according to the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS Report) administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). As UTD’s sustainability program has grown in recent years, UT Dallas earned AASHE STARS Gold certification for sustainability in 2019 for the first time in school history. For continued progress, Gary advocates for greater emphasis on the connection between environmental stewardship and social justice and has adopted the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals as the basis for sustainability education and service so that students better understand the connection between our society and the environment. Gary believes that sustainability is a transdisciplinary field to which all members of the UTD community can contribute, and he is always happy to grab a cup of coffee, even virtually, to discuss ideas for collaboration.

Bigger Than Us Episode 108

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  01:52

It definitely is. So Gary, I like to open the show by asking my guests the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Gary Cocke  02:02

So I have a science background. And for my sustainability leadership, that was the lens through which I really started looking at sustainability issues with really a scientific methodology to problems and really a focus on environmental issues. But as I have grown into sustainability leadership in my career, I’ve really become the began to look at sustainability issues as an ethical issue. And it’s driven by science and data. But I’m seeing more and more of a need for us to connect environmental issues, to social issues. And that’s something that I’ve evolved into. And I see that most of our environmental issues are caused by the relationship that our society has with the environment, and the negative outcomes that our environment suffers have profound impacts and many times disproportionate impacts on our society.

So with that, I’ve really shifted the way that I frame sustainability. And it’s, I think, something that has been for the better and leading to better results. And I’ve really shifted from having a STEM focus to where I now speak to arts and humanities and social sciences. And I believe when I say that, I think that arts, humanities, and social sciences may have the most important role to play in solving our sustainability issues. Because in almost every issue that we’re facing, the greater challenge is for us to build culture and will to deploy technologies and policies that we know will work, then it is with regards to the technologies or policies that we have access to.

And so one of the things that I think helps me and my job is in higher education has become very prominent for everybody to take Strengths Class or StrengthsFinder, one of these tools that helps you discover insights into your personality. And I am a relator. And that means that in order for me to work with somebody, I really begin, to be effective in my work once I have figured out how I can relate with the person that I’m collaborating with. And I think that that is something that is a huge advantage for me because when I’m talking about sustainability, I’m passionate about environmental issues. I’m passionate about social issues, and I have yet to find somebody who does not have a passion really.

What I like to do is I like to find where other people light up when we’re talking about these issues, and we can explore that more. And working in higher education. It’s especially rewarding because when you see that light bulb go off, oftentimes, it’s a revelation for students that they have an active role to play in sustainability. And they often see that the application of their education can be towards these pressing issues of sustainability. And one of the things that I’m doing more and more is utilizing the framework that was adopted, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals. And these are a complex framework of 17 sustainability goals that have specific targets and indicators meant to be accomplished by 2030. And it’s a highly technical and bureaucratic system for advancing sustainability, which I deeply believe in. But I also think that it is really valuable in higher education as a language for communicating sustainability, defining sustainability, and helping people see how they have a role to play. Because within the Sustainable Development Goals, we encompass topics from poverty and hunger to climate action to life on land, life, little water.

Everybody seems to have a niche that they are able to find within the Sustainable Development Goals. And then they can find the meaning for their passions and their interests and application.

Host Raj Daniels  06:23

So you mentioned quite a few things there. First of all, to your point, regarding a broader view, more holistic view, I think, almost from an evolution standpoint, as we’re watching these climate change issues come to light, as we’re watching social unrest, you know, racial issues come to light, I think we’re realizing that over the last hundred years, perhaps I’m going to say, you know, the Industrial Revolution, etc. made this almost took a siloed approach. And I think that siloed approach is now breaking down and things are people are realizing more and more just how interconnected a lot of these issues are. And you know, you brought up higher education a few times. Can you give a current overview of your role at and I’m gonna say broadly, University of Texas, Dallas, but going forward I’ll referred to as UTD?

Gary Cocke  07:12

Absolutely. So my title is I am the Director for Sustainability and Energy Conservation. And I’ve been in my position now for about three years. And my role is essentially to impact everything that we do campus-wide to leverage the talents and expertise that we have towards sustainability. And so, to back up of how I got to here, we can talk a little bit about the roots of our sustainability program. It started about 10 years ago, and to this day, is part of facilities management.

So when it began, we were really focused on our operation. So we were building out our recycling programs, we really began to emphasize our LEED buildings and our green buildings, of which we now have eight certified LEED buildings. And that’s over 1.25 million gross square feet on campus. So we’re very proud of how we’ve committed to growing in our green campus. We’ve been just growing as a university tremendously to over about the past decade, we have about doubled our building square footage, and we’ve about doubled our student enrollment. And during that time, we have also been planting trees like crazy. We now have over 7000 trees on our campus. We have several acres dedicated to biodiversity and pollinator plantings, we have three monarch waystations. And we have a comprehensive recycling and composting program. So I was very fortunate to join a program that was really doing great with regards to operational sustainability.

And as I took the reins to lead our sustainability program, I wanted to grow the scope of what we’re doing. And the framework through which I talked about sustainability is provided by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education or ASCE as I refer to them. And there is an assessment that they provide called the STARS report, and that is another acronym. It’s the sustainability tracking assessment and rating system. So hundreds of universities utilize this reporting structure.

There’s four broad categories that they left sustainability efforts into. There are operations, which we were already excelling in. There’s administration, which is what are we doing at the policy level to ensure that we are a sustainable campus, engagement so that student engagement and public engagement and then there’s academics or whatever you’re doing and the research labs, what are we doing in the classrooms, and so If you think about what’s involved in those four categories, that’s everything that we do as a human. And there are 63 credits, it’s a, it’s a 300, and some odd page technical manual. So it is a very comprehensive framework for sustainability programs in higher education.

So I said about growing our programs to be more impactful in all the areas outside of operations while maintaining excellence in operations. So within an administration, we began really attesting to what we were already doing with regards to equity diversity, providing an affordable college experience to students, and prioritizing wellness for students and for staff and faculty. And then a lot of growth has really happened in the engagement and the academics area. So within engagement, we went and we received a certification from the Xerxes society. It’s called the Campus USA certification. And we utilize student leadership to go through an application process. And we made several commitments as a university to provide service-learning opportunities for students related to biodiversity and pollinator support, curriculum development for pollinators, and then all sorts of habitat protection as well. We have a Tree Campus USA certification, where we have provided service-learning opportunities and really prioritize trees on our campus. And then the big one is the sustainability service honors program where we are getting students more engaged with community service. And this is an area that I’m really excited about because as I spoke about earlier, I never met a student that did not get fired up about one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

If you think about the nature of community service, just about any service that you are providing in the community is already likely to be related to one of the Sustainable Development Goals. And so the goal with our sustainability service honors program is to engage students in providing at least 250 hours of service by the time they graduate and then connecting that service to one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And if they provide the requisite service, then they receive a sustainable development goal of helping that they were at graduation and the certificate recognizing their service. And they hopefully will graduate, better equipped to take the lessons that they learned regarding sustainability and community service with them out into the world as they go and accomplish great things post-graduation.

And so that starts to get out one of the big things that I really do that really drives what I do, I want every student to graduate, better equipped to be an engaged citizen. And so this is a program where we’ve grown and we’re engaging students more. And then, within academics, we have really grown what we’ve been doing, I have the honor of teaching a class called Sustainable Development Goals and local action. And so this is a class where I was lucky to be able to build it exactly how I wanted. And one of the things that I kept seeing over and over again, was one that students are passionate about sustainability. But sometimes they have a limited definition of what sustainability means. And so that means if it’s an engineer, they may see energy efficiency as sustainability, but they may not fully recognizable for social issues and sustainability. Or if you are a social scientist, you may really emphasize on social justice, but he may not take into account biodiversity. And so through this class, I’m able to define sustainability through the Sustainable Development Goals, and hopefully, get my students to really have an attitude that embraces collaboration for sustainability.

And then the second thing that I had just seen over and over again, is that oftentimes this scope of sustainability issues just feel overwhelming. And so with this class, we’re able to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals. And then we provide service with a community partner. And students can see how their personal actions and how their, their leadership can actually address real-world issues. And what I’ve seen through the classes that students are really capable of amazing things. We’re teaching the class remotely this semester for the third time, but in the two previous semesters, as a class, we work with a single community partner and provided an analysis to them.

In the fall of 2019, my students collaborated, and with their expertise combined in their passions combined, they provided an analysis over food waste, according to the EPA Food Recovery hierarchy to a local school district and that gave the school district a road forward on how to better address food waste on their campuses. In the spring of 2019, or in the spring of 2020, excuse me, my students partner with the North Texas Food Bank. And they again, they leverage their cumulative knowledge and talents and passions, and provided an analysis to the North Texas Food Bank, on how sustainable development goals can provide a language and a roadmap towards addressing root causes of food insecurity in our region.

And on top of providing that analysis, whenever COVID disrupted this spring semester, my students felt like they needed to do something more immediate. And they began a fundraising campaign to benefit North Texas Food Bank to provide meals to food-insecure people in our community. And they raised over $3,000 as a part of that. And they also learned about how to put together a digital campaign to support a local cause. And it gave a lot of meaning to the work that my students did.

And currently in the fall, since COVID, is disrupting us, rather than working with a single community partner, what we’ve been able to do in this class is lecture on the Sustainable Development Goals and then have more guest lectures remotely from local practitioners. And then students provide virtual service with a community partner of their choice. And so this allows for students to have a little bit more of a deep and personal exploration of their own personal interest within sustainability. And so it’s something that I’m really proud of, and it’s something that I would like to see more and more in higher education and at UT Dallas. In addition to you know, the work that I’m able to do with my class, we’ve focused on growing sustainability into our curriculum as well.

I’m proud to say that we have 193 courses currently, 218 researchers, and we offer graduate and undergraduate programs related to sustainability. So in short, we’ve really focused on growing sustainability, across just about everything that we do as a campus. And, and we’ve really seen the value add that it can provide for the university, and for our students through defining sustainability more broadly.

Everybody seems to have a niche that they are able to find within the Sustainable Development Goals. And then they can find the meaning for their passions and their interests and application.

Host Raj Daniels  17:17

It sounds like UTD and yourself are doing some amazing work regarding sustainability. How do you identify what choose which community partners you’re going to work with.

Gary Cocke  17:28

So when we’re looking for community partners to work within our classes, I started by putting the call out to the UN regional center for expertise or RCE North Texas, which UT Dallas and UT Arlington founded. The goal for the RC network is essential to take the global goals, and to distill them down to issues of regional importance, and to break silos between education, private industry, nonprofit and local government so that we can bring together consensus around solutions that make sense for our region. And so I put up the call for projects that would be hopefully a value add to our RCE members and a learning experience for my students. And so I was really grateful to get several really great projects to choose from. And with the passion that I’ve seen from students around issues related to food insecurity, and the great framework that issues related to food provide for exploring the interdisciplinarity of sustainability. We landed on projects, with Wiley ISD, to provide the food waste planning that I discussed, and the North Texas Food Bank, in order to dig a little bit deeper on how we can use the Sustainable Development Goals as that language for sustainability.

Host Raj Daniels  19:02

And regarding the classes you teach, have you seen an increase in interest or popularity in the classes over the years?

Gary Cocke  19:09

I have. And so my class fills up very quickly. And it’s one of the things that I find very gratifying is that it fills up quickly. It’s also a challenge because, in order for my class to work, it’s very much a dialogue-driven class.

So I tell my students on day one, that this isn’t going to be one of the courses where the professor gives you the answers during lecture and then you repeat those answers on a test. If I had the answers to all of the sustainability challenges that we’re facing, then, then then I would hopefully solve the world’s problems. But the goal for the class is more to empower students so that they can hopefully be more successful than previous generations have been solving these issues. So in order for the class to work as a discussion-based class, that means that it’s a smaller class. So what I really hope we’re able to do is to establish more classes like this one, where students are able to explore their interests and apply them towards sustainability, or is a class that is already focused on an issue related to sustainability. I think we just need to be speaking directly to that more because what I found so often is that students really find meaning through the Sustainable Development Goals. And I think that it is complementary to all of them, that we’re getting into it, we are able to provide that context for students and it makes the classroom learning more engaging and more dynamic.

Host Raj Daniels  20:45

I love the idea of a dialogue driven or discussion driven teaching method, I think, probably engages the students even more. What are some of the interesting or more common questions you get from students when they’re in your class?

Gary Cocke  20:58

I think that the biggest challenge is just to help students see that their interests have a role to play. And so the first day of class, what I sit students down and lead them through is an exploration exercise, where we look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And if your audience is not familiar with them, I’m just going to read through them quickly.

Goal one is no poverty, two is zero hunger, three is good health and well being four is quality education. Five is gender equality, six is clean water and sanitation. Seven is affordable and clean energy, eight is decent work and economic growth. Nine is industry innovation and infrastructure can is reduced any qualities. 11 is sustainable cities and communities. 12 is responsible consumption and production. 13 is climate action. 14 is life below water. 15 is life on land. 16 is peace, justice, and strong institutions, and 17 as partnerships for the goals. And so when I put those 17 goals in front of students, and I tell them that their role in this class is to apply their expertise to issues that are related to these goals, it can sometimes seem daunting.

And then I asked them to rank which ones are the top five most important. And I’ve done this myself several times. And I’ve seen many students do this. And it’s interesting to see the answers that I get from students. And it’s been interesting to see how my answers evolve over time. So with this, I have seen my personal shift from being really focused on climate action life, underwater, life on land, I really had a focus on the environmental aspects of sustainability. And over time is shifted more towards reduced inequalities, quality education, peace, justice, and strong institutions. So I’m gravitating more towards social issues.

What I’m hoping students will go through with this as well as there’s no right answer, but I want them to find what their right answer is. Oftentimes, they aren’t aware that they have passions that are gravitating towards social causes or environmental issues. And then you can ask them if they’re major complements the Sustainable Development Goals that they’ve chosen. And you can ask them if they have provided service to advance the things that they’re passionate about. You can ask them if their career plans are oriented towards these things that they know that they have passions for. And through that exploration, I’ve really found that students can end up with a much deeper meaning to the education that they’re receiving. And I get a lot of students that circle back and will write me notes about how the class has changed their perspective on the education that they’re getting. I end up writing a lot of recommendations for grad schools and things like that, which always they’re very gratifying for me.

Host Raj Daniels  24:16

Gary, I think that’s a beautiful question, how does your major compliment your interest? I think that’s a great way to, you know, look at the SDGs. And even more broadly speaking, whether it’s environmental issues or sustainability, and what we’ve been speaking about on this show is perhaps finding what I’ve been calling entry points for an individual that is looking to get involved in this kind of work. So I think it’s a great framework, and I will be sure to share that. Coming back to your change or your shift, if you will, from you know, broader environmental to more social. Can you speak to that a bit like what happened? What was the transition and, you know, perhaps as a broader society, what can we do to help some of the social issues that you are more interested in now?

Gary Cocke  25:02

Absolutely. So out of graduate school, my first job was working in water conservation for the municipal government during our most recent drought in Texas, which was not too long ago. And I was really thankful to have had that experience as my first boots on the ground sustainability job. Because if you need to impact meaningful change, nothing is more serious than water conservation during the drought. And so I’ve learned how to communicate to residents and appeal to their interests related to water conservation.

I very much started off wanting everybody to think like me, and that means that I wanted residents to value water for the intrinsic value of a shared resource. And I quickly found that that was going to be very hard to do now is going to be much more successful in my job, if I would appeal to their interests in their, their personal finances and, and educate them so that they found a reason why they wanted to conserve water. And I took that kind of attitude of partnership, and outreach, and education into my job. And I think that it helps me be successful and in avoiding a more negative outcome from the drought. And so from there, that really kind of made me a bit more of a utilitarian with my regards to outreach and education.

I try to meet people where they are and push them to be a better steward of our environment because of it. Now, with regards to my shift from environmental to social issues to what I’ve seen over and over, again, is that environmental issues are almost always caused due to society’s impact on the environment. And I think that it is a prerequisite to addressing environmental issues, for us to look at the societal issues that are causing our environmental harm. And so I see over and over again, that if we don’t take care of the human component, and include that in these conversations, we are not fully addressing the whole issue. And so with that, you know, we have technologies, we have policies, we have things that we know that we could be doing to better protect our environment. However, we lack the culture, and the will to really pursue these with the urgency that we should be pursuing them.

I try to marry those two things that I’ve just spoken about. And I really tried to meet people where they are. And I try to find what their interests are, I tried to bring them into the conversation, and hopefully point that conversation towards sustainability. And I really believe that the more people that you have participating in that conversation, the better the outcome will be. And if we can get as many people here in that, and it could fit in there, I think that we can really make a profound change for this world.

Host Raj Daniels  28:27

So that leads lovely into my next question, which is the crux of our conversation, the why behind what you do, what drives you what motivates you, it’s obvious with your background, you could be you know, working in many different roles. But why this role and why today.

Gary Cocke  28:42

I love connecting with students. And I tell people regularly that I think I have the best job in the world, where I get to drive meaningful change for sustainability. And I get to influence what we’re doing as a university to address the issues as urgently as possible. But what really fires me up as I get ready for work every day is working with students and turning on that light bulb for students that these are going to be the issues that their generation faces. This is going to be the application for their education. I really believe that students that I’m working with today are going to be much more successful and addressing these issues than previous generations have been. And so I really love to think about how the conversations that I’m having, and how these students are reacting, how it’s going to ripple forward and how optimistic I am for the future because of what students are capable of.

Host Raj Daniels  29:47

So you definitely sound like an optimist. So my next question is, what’s the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Gary Cocke  29:55

So I’ve never thought of myself as a sustainable Leader. But one of the surprises that I have found through my career is that the type of change that we are meeting with issues of sustainability requires a different kind of leadership than what I had thought about leadership being in the past. And so sustainability leadership requires inclusive leadership. It requires empowering leadership. And it requires lifting voices that often have not been heard. And then it requires an organization in an institution that is willing to embrace the unknown. And so like I, as I spoke about in my class, I don’t have all of the answers to solve all of the Sustainable Development Goals, and I sure wish I did. But one thing that I do know is that to work in that direction, it’s going to take a very large effort, with many people taking part in that conversation. And that definition of leadership has been a revelation for me throughout my career. And I’m humbled to be in a position where I can lead for a change, and empower students to hopefully do the same.

I really believe that students that I’m working with today are going to be much more successful and addressing these issues than previous generations have been.

Host Raj Daniels  31:26

So I definitely see you as a leader in the area. And as the leader, I’m going to give you a magic wand. What does the future hold for, let’s say, broadly, you know, the UTD department of sustainability or even teaching sustainability 2025. What do you see yourself doing with the department doing?

Gary Cocke  31:43

I want every student to graduate with a better understanding of the issues facing the world. And I want every student to graduate with a better understanding of how they can use their talents to create a positive change for the world. And I think we can do this in several different ways. So I spoke a little bit about our sustainability service honors program. And what we’re doing there is connecting students to sustainability through the service that they’re providing. And there are many drivers for students to be providing service in the community, some are doing it through commitments to their fraternity, some have degree plans that require it for them. And really, I think for whatever their motivation is, if they are able to reflect upon the service they provide, connect that to sustainability, to the Sustainable Development Goals, then they’re going to graduate with a better understanding not only of the issues facing the world but their ability to impact change. And so that’s one thing that we’re doing, and I’m currently participating with an implementation group where we are bringing a service software to campus.

We are going to connect campus-wide service to the Sustainable Development Goals as students register for any service, no matter how, no matter what their motivation is for, for seeking the service opportunity, they’ll see that connection. So that’s something I’m really excited to see happen. And what I hope we can continue to make more progress towards is just speaking directly to the application of classroom learning that is likely already occurring. But putting that in the context of sustainability. Because like I said before, I think that it provides a meaningful context for students. If you’re studying energy efficiency, and your engineering course already, I think that we should speak about how that contributes to addressing sustainability challenges going forward. I think that provides a more enriching educational experience for students. And it makes them better equipped to really meet the challenges that they’re going to need to meet whenever they graduate and apply their knowledge.

Host Raj Daniels  33:58

That’s definitely a compelling vision. If you could share some specific advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Gary Cocke  34:12

Do what you can. And so that gets back to my philosophy of meeting people where they are, and the issues that we face sometimes feel daunting and overwhelming. But small actions matter. And if everybody does what they can, I think the cumulative impact will be profound. And I also encourage people not to underestimate their ability to impact their problems.

I think a really great example of this has been my experience through teaching my course and in particular in the spring of 2020 whenever I presented to students that their collaborative project with a roomful of strangers that they just met, they were going to provide an analysis to the North Texas Food Bank, who has an organization provide roughly 100 million meals to the community every year. And they were going to provide that organization analysis on how to use the Sustainable Development Goals to address the root causes of food insecurity. And their jaws dropped. I mean, that is a daunting problem if I had ever heard one. And then to see the students collaborate and to work with one another to provide really an amazing analysis over to the North Texas Food Bank, with a really good path forward on how the Sustainable Development Goals because of that interconnected nature, could be used as a language that really is meant to get at the root process root causes of systemic problems, and leverage the convening power of an already large organization to facilitate these solutions and these conversations, that the students learned a lot from it. And to me, it was really just instructive. What this generation is capable of if they put their minds to a big problem.

If you’re studying energy efficiency, and your engineering course already, I think that we should speak about how that contributes to addressing sustainability challenges going forward. I think that provides a more enriching educational experience for students. And it makes them better equipped to really meet the challenges that they’re going to need to meet whenever they graduate and apply their knowledge.


Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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