Conservation Expert Is Passionate About Sustainable, Efficient Practices on Campus

It wasn’t until he took an ecology class in the final semester of college that Gary Cocke realized what he wanted to do for a living. During a class backpacking trip to Colorado, Cocke learned how to filter water and secure his own food.

Gary Cocke portrait

Gary Cocke

“I really had my eyes opened,” Cocke said. “I always liked to be outside but didn’t know I could make a career path out of it.”

Cocke went on to earn a master’s degree in biology with a concentration in ecology and conservation from Texas Christian University, where he also worked in the aquatic ecology lab.

Now Cocke is bringing his love of the outdoors and his concern for the environment to his new role as the associate director of energy conservation and sustainability at The University of Texas at Dallas. He replaces Thea Junt MS’16, MBA’16, who has taken a position with Children’s Medical Center.

Cocke has already been active in planning the University’s seventh annual Earth Week activities, set for April 16-20. The festivities will feature student- and community-focused green initiatives, including an Earth Fair, a service project to recycle used denim and installation of more bee hives on campus.

Cocke met Junt when both were members of the Texas Regional Alliance for Campus Sustainability (TRACS), a network of faculty members, students and sustainability professionals who implement sustainability solutions across campus operations and academics.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things from Thea, and I am very interested in working out of Facilities Management. This is the place to be if you want to make buildings more efficient and make operations sustainable,” Cocke said.

He’s also impressed that faculty members chair the University’s Sustainability Committee, which participates in STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System), a self-reporting framework set up by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Cocke would like to see UT Dallas improve its current STARS Bronze rating.

“I’ve no doubt this is a STARS Silver university. I think we’re set up to be successful according to national standards. If we follow AASHE’s best practices, it’ll happen. We can find things to implement to get us there,” Cocke said.

Rick Dempsey, associate vice president for facilities management, said Cocke will help take UT Dallas to the next level in sustainability initiatives.

“We’re really excited to have an individual with Gary’s experience come on board. We look forward with great anticipation to noteworthy accomplishments in energy conservation and sustainability at UT Dallas over the next several years,” Dempsey said.

'Sustainability Sherpa'

Cocke comes to UT Dallas from the University of North Texas, where he worked out of the student affairs office to engage students in sustainability initiatives that included establishing a community garden and helping the institution become bike-friendly and 100 percent renewable.

“I saw myself as a sustainability Sherpa,” Cocke said of his success in mentoring students. “Students care about sustainability, but they don’t know how to advance solutions — how to budget, how to measure results, how to present a proposal. I gave them mentorship to turn their ideas into reality.”

One student, he recalled, envisioned a carless campus, complete with an elaborate infrastructure that was not particularly cost-effective. Cocke helped that student come up with an incremental plan that would move them toward a more pedestrian-friendly campus.

“He really wanted to see more cycling on campus, but bicycle theft was an issue for us. We collaborated with campus police to host bike registration events where students who got their bikes engraved would receive a bike lock,” Cocke said.

Forming Partnerships and Collaborating 

Before working at UNT, Cocke was part of the City of Plano’s sustainability group, where he led water conservation education and policy development during the 2014 drought. The city’s water supply was reduced by 30 percent when invasive zebra mussels spread throughout Lake Texoma, the largest water source for North Texas.

“Plano was hard-hit. We were in a bad way. If it could be related to water conservation, we did it. Water restrictions helped us reduce outdoor residential use by 43 percent,” Cocke said.

Cocke visited homeowner associations to explain why water restrictions were necessary. He also established water rebate programs and earned an irrigation license to teach homeowners about drip irrigation.

The key to getting buy-in on environmental issues, he said, is forming partnerships and collaborating with individuals and groups to achieve a more sustainable future.

“It’s about improvement, not perfection,” Cocke said. “I try to meet people where they are and help them to do a little bit better in a way that makes sense to them. I try to complement what they’re already doing. If it doesn’t make sense, they won’t do it.”

Earth Week: April 16-20

Earth Week is organized by the Office of Student Volunteerism and the Office of Sustainability in partnership with nearly 40 campus and community groups.

The week’s activities will include a free garden workshop, honey harvesting, a faculty research panel, a film and the annual Earth Fair on the campus mall.

A new event is an ecological experience hosted by the University’s Virtual Reality Society in the Student Services Addition at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19.

Students can pledge to begin sustainability practices at the Pledge Tree all week.

Some events require pre-registration.

See the complete schedule.

Monday, April 16

Free Gardening Workshops, 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., meet in SSA LobbyFilm: Cinematheque: An Inconvenient Sequel, 7 p.m., SSA Auditorium (SSA 13.330)

Tuesday, April 17

Operation Upcycle Service Project, 2-4 p.m., Galaxy Room A (SU 2.602)

Wednesday, April 18

Faculty Research Panel, 10-11 a.m., TI Auditorium (ECSS 2.102)

Thursday, April 19

Pop-Up Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., the PlinthEarth Fair, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Student Union MallThe Crystal Reef: A Virtual Reality Experience, 7-8 p.m., SSA Gaming Wall

Friday, April 20

Butterfly Flutterby, 9-11 a.m., Monarch Waystation

Ongoing Events — April 16-20

Trade-In, Trade-Up, Recycle: Recycle e-waste at the UTD Tech Store for credit toward new devices, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.The Pledge Tree, Student Union Lobby

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].