Numberscruncher: The College Sustainability Report Card

The academic world is its own little terrarium that ends up affecting the broader cultural ecosystem. Universities are relatively (though not completely) removed from the economic cycle, so they tend to be stable employers. Students spend their three, four, or five years immersed in new ideas, meeting new people, and managing a set of new responsibilities. Faculty members do research, teach students, and talk to other people all day in an attempt to find out new things. It all filters into the world that the rest of us live in, although not always directly.

College students often take up causes, some of which they continue to pursue after graduation. A popular cause is the environment. Does student activism make a difference? The annual College Sustainability Report Card, released early this month, attempts to measure the influence of students and others in making campuses more sustainable. The report is prepared by the staff of the Responsible Endowments Institute, an organization that evaluated campus governance and endowment investing and is supported by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. This is the third year of the study, which now tracks the 300 colleges with the largest endowments as well as another 32 campuses that asked to participate.

The study evaluates campus facilities, student life, and endowment policies to grade different schools. Campuses can pick up points for green buildings, bringing organic produce into the dining halls, or committing part of the endowment to investments in sustainable technologies. The researchers focus on the money for two reasons. First, it gives some clues about the administration’s approach to transparency and engagement. Second, the more money a college has, the more it can spend on such things as LEED-certified buildings and alternative-fuel shuttle buses. It’s not necessarily a surprise that Harvard has an A- (the highest possible grade this year) and Youngstown State University is a D+.

Being green should not be a luxury for the elite, but it is. Although there are cost-effective ways to be green (shopping at thrift stores, growing your own vegetables), these are not as attractive as shopping at Whole Foods and installing bamboo flooring. Likewise, a campus can do a lot by promoting reusable coffee cups and water bottles and by installing compact fluorescent lighting, but those won’t generate the accolades that come with new LEED-platinum certified buildings and a commitment to only use cage-free eggs in the cafeteria.

My family eats cage-free eggs at home, and it kills me because they cost three times what regular eggs do. And I know that the chickens aren’t really all that free. We should just give up eggs all together, but then what would I make for dinner on those really crazy days? My guilt and laziness offset my cheapness and cynicism. Also, we can afford the vegetarian-fed, certified cage-free eggs. Can a campus that is looking at rising expenses, state budget cuts, and less money in the endowment for financial aid afford to be profligate with its egg expenses?

The survey organizers expected to see a decrease in spending on sustainability initiatives this year because of the financial decline, and they did not. It may be that campuses have not fully absorbed the budget cuts following from last year’s market decline. Also, some of these programs are cost-effective, especially once they are up and running. Maybe not the cage-free eggs, but certainly improvements in lighting, heating, and cooling will pay off in the future.

I expect to the grade point averages fall in next year’s report card. Okay, Harvard students won’t have to eat eggs from cruel farmers, but that’s because they are now being served cold breakfast only. Eventually, campuses will cut have to cut back on capital spending projects, so buildings won’t be upgraded to become more fuel-efficient or replaced with modern, sustainable facilities. There will be less funding for student groups, so fewer reusable coffee mugs will be given away. You would hope that someone who really believes in sustainability would still bring the reusable cup and refillable water bottle, but not everyone has the commitment.

Recessions are good for the environment because they force individuals to stay home, reduce, and reuse. But when it ends, most people will go back to their old ways. They’ll have a lot of pent-up demand to meet, and they’ll decide that they like Nordstrom better than the thrift store.

Organizations will pick up spending on the environment after the recession, if only because it’s popular with customers. They’ll also hope for the longer-term payoff in costs. But first, they’ll need to recover their capital bases, and that could take a lot of time. The environment remains a frill, a nice thing for Harvard but not something that a state commuter university should mess with.

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