The George Washington University has named Kathleen A. Merrigan, the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the university’s first executive director of the Sustainability Institute.
As leader of the university’s sustainability initiatives, Dr. Merrigan will be responsible for launching and nurturing a Sustainability Institute that advances GW’s prominence as an academic leader in multidisciplinary sustainability education, research and outreach. She will also join the university’s academic faculty.
“Kathleen Merrigan has exactly the combination of deep experience, professional stature and energetic commitment we need to launch this important effort,” said President Steven Knapp. “Under her leadership, the Sustainability Institute will enable us to develop a full academic complement to the sustainability work we are actively pursuing across the university’s operations.”
Named one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential People in the World” in 2010, Dr. Merrigan brings to the university a diverse range of experience spanning nearly 30 years.
In 2009, she was nominated to serve as USDA deputy secretary by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. During her four-year tenure at the USDA, she oversaw the daily operations of agency, leading the USDA’s budget process, establishing the agency’s priorities and monitoring progress, and driving its rulemaking process. Her accomplishments include creating and leading the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to support local food systems; serving as a key architect of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign; and representing the United States before the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.
Before joining the USDA, Dr. Merrigan served for nearly a decade as a faculty member and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University. She has also held positions as a senior analyst for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and a staff member for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, where she wrote the law establishing national standards for organic food.
Dr. Merrigan earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. from Williams College.
“I’m thrilled to build upon the university’s innovative sustainability efforts. GW is ideally located, situated among federal and international agencies and in a city with its own ambitious sustainability plan,” said Dr. Merrigan. “Given the limitless opportunity in our capital city coupled with the extraordinary expertise across GW faculty and staff, the university is well positioned to advance the field of sustainability in profound ways through research, teaching and practice. This is a perfect place to invest my years of sustainability leadership and networks to solidify GW as a global leader in sustainability.”
At GW, Dr. Merrigan will oversee university-wide sustainability efforts with the goal of building premier programs focused on sustainable systems. She will work closely with GW’s Office of Sustainability to integrate academics with GW’s successful sustainability outreach and practice initiatives, including its Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy, Climate Action Plan and GWater Plan.
“I am delighted that Dr. Merrigan will be joining the GW community as executive director of the Sustainability Institute,” said Provost Steven Lerman. “Dr. Merrigan’s career in the field spans academia, state and federal government, and the private sector. She is clearly the right person to lead our sustainability efforts to the next level.”
Dr. Merrigan’s selection was the result of an extensive nationwide search. “We formed a top-notch search committee representing highly accomplished faculty from across the university,” said Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Melissa Perry, who led the search committee. “Due to diligence and dedication to the sustainability initiative by the committee members, we successfully compiled a select list of stars in the field of sustainability. Kathleen emerged as an exceptional institutional builder, a policy visionary and a true leader."
Sustainability is one of GW’s core strategic initiatives, and an essential part of achieving the university’s goal of being the preeminent research university in the nation’s capital. The university has substantial academic expertise in a wide range of fields related to sustainability, including climate and energy, environmental engineering, public health, food culture and systems, and environmental law and policy.
GW currently offers more than 250 courses on topics related to sustainability and 40 undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate programs in sustainability-related fields. In 2012, the university began offering an 18-credit minor in sustainability open to all undergraduate students.
In addition, Planet Forward, GW’s innovative citizen journalist project dedicated to finding the best solutions to sustainability challenges around the globe, gives GW students and faculty the opportunity to tell their stories to the world.