Ratings and Rankings and Lists, Oh My!

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A few weeks ago, hot on the heels of our Report Card,
came Sierra‘s annual “Cool Schools
feature, profiling some truly tremendous campus efforts. Days later, Plenty’s Green
Campuses 3.0
highlighted a few more. Grist
weighed in with a “Top 15” list of
more recently, and supplemented their offerings today with a special
series on eco-activism
on campus, which focuses on both student work and
operational changes. I could go on with many more illustrious examples of the
media (finally!) paying attention to campus climate efforts, but since these are
just a few of the publications that have written recently about greening efforts
in higher education, and many of them have already gotten coverage on this blog, I’ll stop
there. Back-to-school days are here for sure! 

Unfortunately, these articles only rarely delve into the
full-length research studies done by university reviewers and nonprofits. The
magazine coverage is cool, but not nearly as meticulous in its methodology as
some of these studies, as
reported by
The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Buildings &
Grounds blog. 

Our Campus Environment
report falls into this second category, by covering over 1,000 schools in the US
rather than cherry-picking a few for a top ten list. Princeton
rated 534 schools in its version, and next week the Sustainable Endowments
is scheduled to release its own Green Report Card, which covers
300 schools that were selected based on their large endowments. AASHE is in the
pilot stages of another system, called STARS,
which is intended to create a common standard for measuring sustainability in
higher education. For a more in-depth comparison of the differences between
these reports (and a few additional ones), see this exellent article
from Inside Higher Ed, which explains
the differences in methodology and intent of the various systems. 

The idea of rankings and ratings can be a sticky one. When
dealing with so many schools, impartiality is usually easy, but deciding how to
weight factors is definitely not. Because we here at NWF’s Campus Ecology tend
to focus on climate issues as the greatest threat to wildlife and our own human
habitat, we are more likely to prioritize renewable energy purchasing than
something like a small-scale local food co-op, since the first is more measurable
and directly related to reducing GHG emissions. However, that small food co-op
may be student-driven (as opposed to a facilities dept. decision), and
therefore more likely to engage youth leaders that will go out in to the world
and effect all kinds of change. It is also more personally relatable, since
such food usually tastes better and puts local communities on a more direct
path towards overall sustainability. Depending on the values of an
organization, prioritizing is difficult, and it’s rare that any single entity
can cover everything it wants to in a coherent way. 

That difficulty is why we’re glad that campus
environmental work is getting so much attention. From the outside, it probably
looks like a lot of noise and competing reports, but most of us in here tend to
look at it as filling in each others’ holes, raising new solutions and doing our best to support the colleges at the forefront of investing in a new energy future. Surely, it’s
a wonderful development that 2008 seems to be one of those years when forces