Michael Catanzaro: A Foundation of Sustainability Success

Michael Catanzaro, Director of SustainabilityMichael Catanzaro, a double USD alumnus, has served the university community as its director of sustainability since 2009. He's implemented and overseen numerous Office of Sustainability's successes.

One of the biggest and most rewarding challenges a person can take on is something that's bigger than themselves, yet they still have a desire to do it for the greater good of all. In Michael Catanzaro's case, his challenge was to transform an entire University of San Diego campus through a multi-tiered, entrepreneurial-style approach toward a singular goal: embrace sustainability to make a difference.

A timeline graphic on USD’s Office of Sustainability website says it all. Recycling was initiated in 1989. The next marker is the November 2007 creation of a sustainability task force and a subsequent task force report in April 2008. After that, everything else came through Catanzaro’s involvement.

“It has been incredible,” he says. “Year after year I always thought it won’t get better than this, and year after year, we’ve done better and better.”

Catanzaro, a double USD alumnus has been a fixture on campus since 1996. First as a student with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in leadership studies, professionally since 2001, and since 2009 when he became USD’s first-ever director of sustainability.

The timeline shows a bevy of accolades, everything from multiple partnership agreements with San Diego Gas and Electric, a solar panel installation atop multiple campus buildings, an energy efficiency investment and fuel cell installation to important rankings and recognition from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (STARS Gold), the Sierra Club, City of San Diego, and awards for work done through USD’s Electronics Recycling Center (ERC).

“He’s very entrepreneurial and that has helped him get things off the ground,” says Trey McDonald, who has served as climate and energy manager at USD for 1½ years. “It led to the success of the ERC, which serves the community, provides job creation, makes money and embraces the broader mission of the university as an anchor institution. The ERC is a model for other universities to follow.”

The important question now is for USD to continue moving forward. Catanzaro, in July, announced he’ll move to Tucson, Ariz., in August to become the city's energy manager. His departure puts an impetus on an eventual successor to maintain the connections with others across campus to create and gain university-wide acceptance for sustainability efforts.

"Michael is a true Torero, having earned his education degrees at USD, then spending all of his professional career working for and advancing programs at USD," says Melissa Plaskonos, assistant vice president of Facilities Management. "Michael is an entrepreneur at heart. He started our Office of Sustainability from scratch, with practically zero funding. Since then, he's grown the office into a nationally renowned organization almost completely self-funded by external grants and recycling revenue, setting the standard in areas such as electronics recycling. He's also an educator at heart, having taught classes at USD, given lectures at professional conferences and created numerous jobs and learning opportunities for USD students via the sustainability office. He's definitely made his mark at USD. I'm excited for this next adventure he's embarking on in Arizona, but he will be missed."

Taking a long look at what Catanzaro achieved will help USD during this transition.

"There are multiple projects Michael led that will benefit USD and the region long after he's gone," says Michel Boudrias, associate professor of Environmental and Ocean Sciences and the faculty chair for USD's Sustainability Task Force. "He was a major player in getting solar panels on campus, he got the award-winning Electronics Recycling Center going and played a key role in the Climate Collaborative, a unique partnership that brings together academia, business, government and agencies around the county to help us all prepare for the impacts of climate change.

"One common thread with all of his projects is that he has a deep understanding and commitment to a comprehensive approach to sustainability with environmental, economic and social justice benefits," Boudrias continues. "Michael has established several projects that highlight how USD can be a champion of social-cultural sustainability benefiting the students, faculty, the campus and the community."

Successfully Sustainable

Catanzaro's leadership focus on sustainability reached many areas on campus, including initiatives to help USD save money on utilities annually, bringing in $5 million of external funding, being resourceful and to be a proactive problem-solver.

The sustainability office has gone through USD’s sustainability portfolio when it comes to water, energy, e-waste, recycling, transportation, dining services/food, grounds/buildings, as well as collaborative projects with San Diego leaders regarding climate change. At USD nowadays, students — undergrads and graduate — can choose from nearly 400 courses that have a sustainability component. In recent years, the office has supported research and capstone projects that offer a sustainability connection.

Student and staff involvement increased on Catanzaro’s watch. A Green Office Certification Program is available for all campus departments; an Eco-Resident Certification Program exists for students in residence hall rooms; Office of Sustainability offers internships and assistantships; student organizations such as Be Blue, Go Green Team, the Vigor Garden Club, Student Vegans United, and Fair Trade Club exist; School of Leadership and Education Sciences has a sustainability committee; Associated Students offers grant funding for sustainability projects; and there’s a Green Move-Out for when students depart residence halls in December and May.

“Sustainability would not be where it is today without Michael,” says Paula Morreale, a USD alumna who served as Catanzaro’s sustainability coordinator for 5½ years before leaving in 2017 to become associate environmental specialist for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s Planning and Environmental Affairs Department. “He literally built the program from the ground up. Michael has such a passion and entrepreneurial spirit for making his community better. His dedication and hard work inspired many students and employees to implement more sustainable practices, not only at USD, but in their personal lives. I’m grateful for the opportunity Michael gave me. I learned so much from him that it helped propel my own career in this field.”

Education, Experience, Teamwork

Attracted to USD as an undergraduate "due to its focus on service and positive social change, something that resonated with my own passions," Catanzaro stayed local after graduation. He worked in various roles for Student Affairs, Finance and for the university’s administration office where he served on USD's Board of Trustees' finance, investment and audit sub-committees.

Upon coordinating USD's Campus Master Plan in 2009, Catanzaro gained the role that has shaped the past decade.

"I have worked to make USD a more sustainable and socially responsible campus, providing leadership to many initiatives that put USD's stated commitment to sustainability and ethical leadership into action," Catanzaro says.

He hasn’t done it alone, of course, but every challenge needs a leader to steer it forward and every idea or program enacted needs viable support to succeed. Overwhelmingly, Catanzaro's approach to campus sustainability was fueled by getting involved and getting connected.

"I think, perhaps, the most interesting part of Michael's work on sustainability at USD was his broad perspective," says Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center within USD’s School of Law. "He saw sustainability as the confluence of economics, environment and equity. His view of sustainability encompassed operations, academics, community engagement both at USD and beyond, and the university's governing policies."

With Anders, Catanzaro co-chaired the sustainability task force and came up with a campus climate action plan in 2016.

Boudrias marvels at Catanzaro's efforts to promote and elevate sustainability through perseverance. "Michael took on the challenge of sustainability at USD during a period of repeated transitions in the leadership of his area and yet he increased the visibility of the office, helped USD earn regional and national recognition and awards, and he expanded partnerships within and outside of USD. His dedication to USD and to sustainability is evident across campus and in San Diego.”

Appreciation for Change

His work not only changed a culture at USD, but himself, too. "It has totally changed the way I live," Catanzaro says. "From energy efficiency at home to driving a plug-in vehicle, I think about consumption differently than I ever did before and I'm a better person because of it. I also value reusing things and extending the useful life of everything I have."

He credited his USD education for “giving me the presence to hold steady during difficult times and withstand the challenges that arose during changes. It’s the foundation of who I am today and the way I think about challenges and opportunities.”

Catanzaro will now begin to build foundation in Tucson. As he transitions, he feels his approach will mirror what he's done at USD. "It's a total continuation and refinement of what I did here," Catanzaro says. "I hope to grow the Tucson program and achieve the savings as I’ve generated at USD."

He looks forward to watching how USD will grow. “I think it should be the preeminent program in the university space. From curriculum to energy generation and more, it is a part of the strategic direction and I think there’s no limit to what can be accomplished with a fresh set of eyes looking at all of our areas of opportunity!”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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