October 26, 2007

University Receives ‘B’ on Sustainability Report Card

Print More

The Sustainable Endowments Institute released the 2008 College Sustainability Report Card on Wednesday, assessing the sustainability of 200 of the nation’s wealthiest universities. Cornell received an overall grade of a B, an improvement from the 2007 Report Card, which gave the University a B-.
The Report Card is considered to be “the only independent sustainability evaluation of campus operations and endowment investments.” It evaluates sustainability in eight categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement. The universities surveyed all have endowments ranging from $230 million to $35 billion.
According to Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the 2008 Report Card surveyed twice as many universities as last year’s. It also assessed universities on a greater number of “indicators,” levels of activity within each general category. The most noticeable difference, however, was the inclusion of the transportation category, which was absent from the first report.
Cornell saw the greatest improvements in grades pertaining to the sustainable investment of the University’s endowment. While the University received two failing grades on the previous Report Card in the categories of endowment transparency and shareholder engagement, they increased to a D and a C, respectively. Additionally, the University’s grade in investment priorities increased from a C to an A.
Since the release of the first College Sustainability Report Card in January 2007, the Cornell community has taken various steps to improve the sustainability of its endowment. In September, the Sustainability Hub announced the creation of the Sustainable Investments Coalition, an organization of student groups seeking to promote the investment of the University’s endowment in sustainable companies.
“The power of investment is something people don’t realize,” said Katherine McEachern ’09, president of the climate action group, KyotoNow!. “It’s good that people have woken up and realized this.”
Since September, the Coalition, which represents KyotoNow! in addition to many other student groups, has met with Steven Golding, executive vice-president for finance and administration, where they submitted a proposal to create a committee to address the issue of shareholder engagement.
“This would not be a student-run committee; it would be an official committee run by University administration and would include members of the administration, faculty and students,” McEachern said.
Carlos Rymer ’08, president of the Sustainability Hub, supported the creation of such a committee.
“We don’t have an aggressive committee whose job is to look at how we vote in relation to social and environmental criteria,” said Rymer. “If we are committed to going beyond the campus [with sustainability efforts], as our President has confirmed, then this is something we should be willing to do.”
While 65 percent of the universities surveyed failed in the category of shareholder engagement, more than in any other category, Orlowski acknowledged that the success of similar committees at institutions such as Harvard and Columbia should serve as a model for change.
“These things don’t change overnight. [Adjustments to such policies] rely on interest and further discussions,” Orlowski acknowledged. “However, changes can be made over the course of an academic year.”
Beyond the scope of the endowment, Cornell received two A grades in the categories of administration and climate change and energy. The Report Card praised both President David Skorton’s signature on the Presidents Climate Commitment and the publication of the University’s first Green Report.
Additionally, according to the Report Card, “ten percent of the entire campus electrical use has been eliminated through the use of Lake Source Cooling to air condition campus buildings. Currently, 16 percent of electricity used by Cornell is sustainably [sic] produced, and the University is planning a combined heat and power project that will improve energy efficiency by nearly 50 percent.”
The University did, however, see a decrease in the grades pertaining to food and recycling in addition to green building.
According to McEachern, such grades can be attributed to an improvement in the grading guidelines and procedures, citing “the adoption of stronger a standard.”
As a whole, 68 percent of schools surveyed improved their overall grades from the 2007 Report Card, indicative of what the report considers to be a “green groundswell” on college campuses.
“Sustainability is a greatly expanding field with a lot of opportunity,” Orlowski said. “It is exciting to see how things are changing.”
Rymer emphasized that there is still a lot of room for improvement in campus sustainability efforts.
“The community is certainly doing good work on many sides, but as a whole, the majority of our population is still not engaged in sustainable practices,” Rymer said. “We need to close the gap on the knowledge and skills that will get us there.”
The entire College Sustainability Report Card can be viewed at: www.endowmentinstitute.org/sustainability