New rankings show prominence of sustainability

The Sustainable Endowments Institute's new green rankings are out, and there is some good news: With all the focus on sustainability in
higher education over the past few years, grades are going up. Just
over half of the schools surveyed earned an overall grade of B-, compared to
only 38 percent in last year’s report.
The average overall grade this year is a
C+, but 26 schools received the top grade (A-), including Amherst,
Harvard, Pomona, University
of Washington and University of New Hampshire.

Like last
year, the report comes on the heels of a variety of rating systems. Sierra
and Greenopia
have their own (less rigorous) versions ranking the Top 20 and the 100 largest,
respectively, and AASHE has just launched its STARS tracking system for
schools to join. Last year, we released the Campus Report Card, which showed
improvement on the operations and facilities side of greening, but a lag in
curriculum development.

SEI’s report, now in its fourth year, only covers 300 schools in its
ratings, leaving out the other 3700 colleges and universities in the U.S, although
32 new schools petitioned to be added this year and are ranked accordingly. It's worth noting that these
300 schools are chosen not on the basis of extraordinary projects or the
extent of their efforts—though many are pack leaders—but on the size of their

The Institute notes, “The profiled schools have combined holdings of more
than $325 billion—approximately 95 percent of all higher education endowment
assets. Widespread investment declines have impacted almost all schools,
with the Report Card finding average endowment value dropping by 23
percent in the past year.”

Its focus on the endowment is the most useful feature of SEI’s research. That enormous pool of money allows the wealthiest schools to support
new research and endeavors that might not otherwise get the funding they need.
Harvard, for example, reports that it invests in renewable energy companies,
and “allocates a portion of the endowment to private equity and natural
resource investments that seed companies and/or ventures that may take
environmental and sustainability factors into consideration.”

But highlighting only the wealthiest or the largest schools is fraught with its own issues. As the Chronicle
and others have pointed out over the years, sustainability is an extremely
difficult thing to track, and an even more difficult thing to grade,
particularly when looking at an entire campus. For example, if the
college is planning to erect a half dozen new buildings that will
certainly increase the energy needs of the campus, even if they are built according to LEED standards, should the school's grade go up or

And what about the small schools, lacking in deep pockets but with commitment to spare?

Mitchell Thomashow of Unity College notes the importance of university investment, writing that colleges serve as dynamic economic multipliers, becoming places “where businesses and faculty work with students and community members to develop innovative entrepreneurial approaches.” However, Unity, which received a B on SEI’s report, wasn’t graded on its endowment because it didn’t meet the minimum threshold of $16 million in assets. It also received a D in the transportation
category because its 24-car fleet doesn’t include any hybrids, and because
“most people walk to their destinations on campus due to Unity’s small size.”
Does this mean that Unity's students and staff aren't invested in their community, or that they are emitting more carbon dioxide during their commutes? Quite the opposite. But SEI's system isn't designed to take these small-school factors into account.

The hope is that as sustainability enters the mainstream, expanded systems like STARS will more comprehensively rate these colleges in a way that takes into consideration factors beyond finance, as well as providing a more common standard for measurement. Without those two factors, measuring sustainability won't be possible.