The Sustainable Endowments Institute published its 2009 College Sustainability Report Card last Wednesday, an annual analysis of the environmental and economic policies of the 300 most affluent universities in the U.S. and Canada. Cornell received a B+, showing consistent improvement from the B it received in 2008.
The report card, according to the SEI, is the “only independent evaluation of campus and endowment sustainability activities.” The combined endowments of the universities surveyed total over $380 billion.
According to Bethany Rogerson, a spokesperson for the SEI, each university in the study received a campus survey, an endowment survey, and a dining survey. Over 97 percent of the schools responded to at least one survey. Cornell responded to all three surveys.
Of the nine categories for evaluation, Cornell earned A’s in administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling and investment priorities. Of the remaining five, Cornell earned four B grades in green building, transportation, endowment transparency and student involvement and a C in shareholder engagement.
66 percent of the schools evaluated improved their overall grade from the 2008 Report Card, and more than four out of five universities showed improvement from 2007.
The highest tier of schools earned an A- grade. These 15 schools, which include Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Colombia and the University of Pennsylvania, were considered Overall College Sustainability Leaders. Cornell was recognized in the second tier grouping of schools considered Campus Sustainability Leaders.
The SEI cited President David Skorton’s signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to carbon neutrality in the long term and the employment of several permanent staff members “dedicated to sustainability efforts.”
The Report Card also praised Cornell Dining’s initiative to purchase from 15 local farms and its switch to organic, fair-trade coffee in many dining halls on campus.
Cornell received its lowest mark in the area of shareholder engagement, but student organizations are working with faculty to improve this grade.
“Food and recycling are more at the forefront of everyone’s minds, whereas endowments and shareholder involvement are not necessarily,” Rogerson said.
“A task force was created to come up with ways that we can be more responsibly invest and that allows students a voice in the shareholder engagement practices,” Kat McEachern ’09, president of climate action group KyotoNOW!, stated in an e-mail. “A solution hasn’t been decided on, but I think by the end of the year at the latest we’ll start hearing about how we’re going to be getting A’s in that area in the future,” she said.
According to Whitney Larsen ’09, president of the Sustainability Hub, the University should also expect a higher grade in the green building category next year. Last year, the Board of Trustees enacted a policy that requires all new building projects that cost over $5 million to achieve a silver rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Cornell currently has seven LEED certified buildings.
In addition to making new buildings environmentally sound, students and the administration are committed to redesigning existing buildings for greater energy efficiency.
“Considerable work is going into renovating old buildings to make them more sustainable,” Larsen added.
The student involvement category was a new addition to this year’s Report Card, indicative of current trends towards action for a “greener” tomorrow.
“Classroom projects turn into bigger projects,” Rogerson said. “Students are clients, especially at a university, so you have a right to make requests.”
“As a student body, I think we deserve at least a B+,” McEachern said. “We have so many student groups on campus working on the three areas of sustainability — the environment, the economy and the people — and we’re seeing people from all over the world getting involved,” she stated.
“I definitely think that the ‘going green’ pop culture has contributed to student involvement,” Larsen stated. “This year, more than any other, freshmen approached us excited at the prospect of making their living and working environment more sustainable.”
“It seems that environmental activism is no longer a part of a hippie counterculture — it has become part of the mainstream,” she stated.
As the SEI research shows, sustainability initiatives on college campuses are expanding.
“Overall sustainability is something that maybe five years ago, it wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue,” Rogerson said. “Now with the gas prices being so high, sustainability is really playing a greater role in the economy and in people’s lives.”
What does this say about the future of our planet?
“I’m very optimistic, because I think we have to be,” Larsen stated. “Those that are discouraged by the worst-case scenarios of global warming and other environmental problems cannot be motivated to work for a more sustainable future. What the future looks like will depend on how hard we work now.”