The Grades are In: The College Sustainability Report Card

I’ve focused a lot on sustainability efforts at colleges and universities around North America over the past few years, so I was pretty excited when Mark Orlowski, the founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, got in touch with me about the upcoming College Sustainability Report Card (in PDF) they were releasing. I figured I’d have a good idea of who’d be on top, and who would need to repeat Sustainability 101.

The Report Card, released on Wednesday, isn’t just measure of efforts schools are taking to green their campuses, though; as it’s name implies, the Sustainable Endowments Institute is also interested in how colleges and universities are investing the money in their endowments. So, they focused on the top 100 schools in terms of their endowment funds: all together, these schools have over $258 billion dollars. In determining the grades for each university, the Institute didn’t just look at the issues we’d expect, such as green building, food and recycling, and climate change and energy policies; they also took into account endowment transparency, shareholder engagement, and investment priorities.

This combination of priorities made for some really interesting results:

  • When only assessing campus operations (the elements we most associate with sustainability), these schools look good: 26 schools received an “A-” or better.
  • When the financial elements were figured in though, the numbers changed pretty dramatically: only four schools — Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth and Williams — received an “A-” or better.

In short, many colleges and universities are doing well with more sustainable operations; most schools, though, literally aren’t putting their money where their mouth is — or, at least, we really don’t know if they are…

I’ve commended many institutions for greening their practices, and still believes that’s a good thing. The potential ripple effect of committing themselves to more sustainable financial practices could be enormous, though. I see this as a parallel situation to Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts: the things that the company does itself will be incredibly important, but the spread of sustainable business practices through its supply chain, and through its competitors’ efforts to keep up, will likely dwarf the action of the world’s biggest retailer. Colleges and universities could also leverage this kind of influence: $258 billion in more sustainable investments, especially when done transparently, would also draw a lot of attention.

The Report Card will be important for these schools as they consider the next steps they can take in greening their campuses and communities. It will be at least as important to these schools many stakeholders — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others — who not only value on-campus efforts to go green, but also spending and investing practices that can influence the world outside the ivory tower.

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