U.S. schools get schooled on sustainability
Remember how report card time at school brought a mix of emotions — excitement, anxiety, a little bit of vomit in your mouth? Oh, to be a student again. But last week, the tables were turned as 100 universities across the country were graded in a College Sustainability Report Card released by the Sustainable Endowments Institute.
Who made the grade? Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Stanford University, and Williams College were the only four to come away with A’s overall (A-minuses, actually). And a fifth of the schools didn’t even pass, among them Boston University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Notre Dame. (Apparently, The Fighting Irish aren’t fighting hard enough for sustainability!)
SEI, a special project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, rated the schools in several areas of sustainability including administration, green building, climate/energy, and food/recycling — but, perhaps most notably, in the areas of investment priorities, shareholder engagement, and endowment transparency.
“I hope that this report will provide a beacon of light that will help bring to the fore the role of endowments in sustainability,” says Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the two-year-old nonprofit.
It’s no surprise, of course, that an organization called the Sustainable Endowments Institute would be concerned with, um, sustainability as it relates to endowments. But it is an important distinction.
“Historically, investments haven’t been considered by most campus sustainability initiatives,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “So [this report] provides a reminder that investments can have an important impact on sustainability.”
While many reports on sustainability at higher-ed institutions (many of them conducted by the schools themselves) focus on the highly visible on-campus practices (i.e. purchase of efficient appliances, use of recycled paper goods, etc.), this one also takes a detailed look at financial practices (i.e. are they investing in renewable-energy funds, how do they handle sustainability-related votes on shareholder resolutions, etc.). You can think of it as a (slightly more complex) version of putting U money where your mouth is.
The Report Card focuses a number of universities both large and small, both well- and lesser-known — all chosen because they represent the largest endowments in higher education. (And I refuse to make a joke about being well-endowed, OK?) These 100 institutions represent about $258 billion in endowment funds, Orlowski says; that’s about three-quarters of all university endowment monies in the U.S.
Response to the report so far has been mostly positive — even from some of the schools receiving not-so-positive marks. In fact, some school officials have told Orlowski that the Report Card is just the leverage they need to raise the issue at the highest levels of their institutions.
“What the report shows is that many schools are taking leadership positions and working on these different areas,” Orlowski says. “And what we really hope this will facilitate and accomplish in part is … to allow peer institutions to learn from each other and to add the best practices and models that work for their own institutions.”
The plan is to revisit the report each year, updating the rankings as appropriate to produce an annual benchmark, U.S. News & World Report-style.
“The Report Card is a great tool for students to see how their school is doing compared to others and demand that their administrators make serious changes,” says Energy Action Coalition Coordinator Billy Parish. “Especially with our climate crisis, the stakes couldn’t be higher for our generation, and colleges need to step it up.”
The 120-page report has already spurred conversation on campuses across the country, Orlowski says. And the conversations are happening at every level — from the administration down to faculty and students. It’s a chance for alums to see how their alma maters stack up as well as a resource for potential students looking at their options.
And what about students who are at these institutions now?
“See where [your school] didn’t do so well, and then start talking to the appropriate decisionmakers and trying to get [your] school to do better,” Dautremont-Smith says. “Forming a student organization, joining an existing one — I think that’s definitely the right approach.”