It’s often the case that colleges and universities lead the way when systemic change is needed. They are the places where some of the best and brightest minds puzzle out answers to the latest societal questions.
That appears to be holding true for the growing discussion over how to add social and environmental values to the traditional economic measurements of success – the so-called “triple bottom line.”
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College campuses can be well-suited to develop sustainability metrics because they often are microcosms of our communities, cities and nations.
Independent agencies have been publishing campus sustainability assessments for several years now, including The Princeton Review Green Rating and Sierra magazine’s America’s Coolest Schools.
Over the past couple of years, however, the higher education community has been looking for ways to standardize sustainability assessment tools. It has come together under an umbrella organization, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, to devise and implement the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS).
In 2011, the association teamed up with other major players to design a single survey Web tool. Each of the agencies will base their reports on a core repository of sustainability data provided by colleges across the United States and Canada. The data collected falls into STARS’ four categories:
- Education and Research: Within this category, colleges report on their formal sustainability curricula and co-curricular activities such as programs that train students in peer-to-peer sustainability education. They must also report on how many faculty members and departments are engaged in sustainability research, how the institution defines such research, incentives offered for doing the research and the role it plays in promotion and tenure.
- Operations: This category measures the environmental footprint of the daily activities on a campus. Colleges report on the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings; greenhouse gas emissions and reductions; dining services; energy consumption; grounds maintenance; purchasing; transportation; waste reduction, diversion and recycling; water consumption; and storm-water management.
- Planning, Administration and Engagement: This measures big-picture strategies and execution. Does a college have a sustainability coordinator? Is there a strategic plan for sustainability? This category also ensures the administration practices what it preaches via socially responsible investing, professional development and community service and outreach.
- Innovation: Under this category, campuses can earn extra credit for pioneering innovative projects and solutions. This is where schools can brag about cutting-edge ideas such as harnessing student recreation center machines to generate electricity.
Although the STARS survey tool continues to be refined, it appears to be gaining a reputation as being the gold standard in campus sustainability report cards.
As University of Vermont Sustainability Director Gioia Thompson has said, “From the way I see it, it’s time for all of us to move on to STARS."
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Whether a college has been involved in green efforts for years or has just hired its first sustainability coordinator, the nature of the sustainability field means there’s always a new challenge around the corner.
The STARS survey, with its focus on collaboration, can provide colleges with a benchmark from where to gauge progress toward greater sustainability. More than simply a report card, STARS is a process of information gathering, sharing and goal setting.