Will the Real Green Colleges Please Stand Up? (Opinion)

Tim Goral's picture
Thursday, March 22, 2012

In the middle part of the past decade, “sustainability” became somewhat of a “college craze” – that is, for ever-competitive college administrators.  Lots of schools jumped on the “green” bandwagon, though some had already been leading the parade for some time.  Others, sadly, have yet to see the light. 

Oberlin College committed early on to sophisticated sustainable buildings, and local and organic food.  My own alma mater, Dickinson College, embraced sustainability as one of the defining measures of both campus systems (LEED Gold buildings, waste oil for biodiesel transportation and for its boilers, its own organic farm supplying its foodservices, free bikes) and its academic and curricular focus.  The University of Colorado at Boulder has committed that all of its new buildings will meet commendable LEED Gold standards, and it runs an alternative transportation system. UCLA recycles, recycles, and then recycles again.  The University of New Hampshire fires up landfill gas to supply energy on campus.  Arizona State University has a School of Sustainability.  American University buys tens of millions of kwH of wind energy and has thoroughly greened its campus. And Middlebury College runs a biomass gasification plant to help it attain carbon neutrality by 2016.

 Measuring a green college or university

There are many ways to measure how green a college is, and there are now very public pronouncements on who’s made it to the “top x number” of such schools: the Sierra Club has an annual list and Grist magazine keeps one.  There’s a “College Sustainability Report Card,” and a slew of college presidents have signed on to a climate change pledge.  Most recently, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has created a master Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Ranking System (STARS) that will feed its information to the Princeton Review and other publications.  Of course, the easiest measure is still the most visible one: is the college constructing its new buildings or rehabilitating its old ones to high sustainability standards, such as LEED-NC (New Construction) Silver, Gold or Platinum levels?  Is it re-designing its landscapes with native plants, and substantially reducing its rainwater runoff with techniques that allow infiltration, plant uptake, and the re-use of stormwater? 

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