U. gets B on sustainability report card

Friday, February 2, 2007

Instead of handing out grades, the University received a grade for a change when the Sustainable Endowments Institute published its first annual College Sustainability Report Card Jan. 24, analyzing the 100 U.S. and Canadian universities with the highest endowments and grading them on the overall environmental sustainability of each institution.

Environmental sustainability measures how efficiently an individual or institution uses ecological resources, taking into account future generations. The universities were graded in seven areas – administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement.

Brown received B’s in nearly every area, except for an A in shareholder engagement and C’s in both investment priorities and climate change and energy. With an overall grade of B, the University was in the company of Duke and Columbia universities and Vassar College as well as the 18 other schools receiving grades between a B- and a B-plus.

“The B grade puts Brown really high up compared to many other institutions,” said Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Institute. “There’s only seven schools that got better grades overall,” he noted, calling the B “a reflection of Brown’s vision and leadership on sustainability.”

No university received an A or A-plus. The four schools to earn an overall A-minus grade were Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Stanford University and Williams College. On their individual report cards, Harvard received six A’s, while Williams had four and Dartmouth and Stanford both received five.

Fifty-four universities earned an overall grade of C and 20 more earned D’s.

“Before starting the project, we realized that, for quite a while, there was no single source of information on what a broad range of schools were doing on sustainability and endowment practices,” Orlowski said. With the grade assessment system provided, the report can be used “as a learning tool between institutions,” he added.

Each category of the report card was graded by taking into account different factors of the individual university. Points were awarded to both statements of sustainability plans and actual programs already in place, with the latter carrying more weight in the final grade.

Data for the grading system was collected from July 2006 until last month from documents available to the public, such as Web sites for the sections related to campus management, said the report. A survey was sent to the universities to allow them to correct or update the information, and 90 of 100 schools responded.

Orlowski believed that “when you compare letter grades between institutions, (the system) works out to be pretty straightforward and accurate.”

However, some doubt the usefulness of the Report Card’s broad grade system.

“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them,” said Resource Efficiency Manager Kurt Teichert, referring to efforts to generalize and compare the sustainability of universities. For example, Teichert said accurate comparisons between universities are difficult when universities measure their emissions in different ways.

“Brown has a long-standing record of implementation of real energy reductions,” Teichert said, responding to the University’s C in that category.

“It’s the people in the university actually doing the work that understand how we work. The bottom line is, more power to the people who try to do those things, but they’re usually uninformed,” Teichert added.

Orlowski defended the grading system.

“There’s no absolutely perfect system to measure anything. We came up with a system that is efficient, effective and fair, and we’re pretty proud at looking at 26 different indicators between seven categories,” Orlowski said.

Though there is still “the opportunity to innovate and room to grow,” Orlowski said “Brown should step back and recognize how far it has come.”

Aden Van Noppen ’09, one of the organizers for both the Brown Environmental Action Network and climate-neutrality campaign emPOWER, said the grading system was a step in the right direction.

“I think the idea of having something like this is important. Until now, we didn’t have something of this nature that evaluated schools,” Van Noppen said. “Schools measure emissions with different criteria. But if they’re measuring them in the same way, it provides us with a foundation to compare schools.”

While trying to compare broad topics like investment priorities across 100 universities of varying size and endowments is tricky, Van Noppen said she hopes the report card will act as “sort of a wake-up call for schools that aren’t doing enough” and encourage Brown to purchase renewable energy offsets.

Students groups from Ivy League universities have already begun their own movement encouraging climate neutrality. Specifically, eight environmental groups, including Brown’s emPOWER, released a statement yesterday calling for their universities to commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

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