As David Moltz reported in these pages Tuesday, a number of campus sustainability officers have issued an open letter describing the characteristics they'd like to see in higher education sustainability surveys, rankings, and evaluations. The letter was sent to The Princeton Review, the US Green Building Council, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Sierra Magazine, the National Wildlife Federation, Peterson's Guide to Four Year Colleges, and Greenopia. It calls for
- transparency of calculations,
- accuracy/verification of data,
- disclosure of the professional expertise of evaluators,
- recognition of the diversity of higher education,
- recognition of the trade-offs between short-term results and long-term strategic change,
- standardized metrics,
- a lack of conflicts of interest, and
- the ability of institutions to opt out of the process.
While a lot of the discussion that's been engendered (and Moltz's article, as a result) has focused on the two most prominent surveys/rating systems, the issues at hand are bigger than simply "the Sustainable Endowment Institute's Green Report Card vs. the AASHE's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS)". It comes down to a number of competing, although not entirely unreconcilable, agendas.
Let me state right up front that nobody devotes themselves to real sustainability work out of a desire for fame and fortune. If you want fame, you'll get more of it by becoming an over-the-top climate change denialist than a sustainability proponent. For fortune, go into green-washing. Really. There's more money in it. So I start from a presumption that everyone in this story is more on the side of the angels than not. And many of them I consider bodhisattvas. But that's not to say that they're all looking at the sustainability elephant in the same manner, or from the same perspective.
First off, there are the organizations (AASHE, SEI, USGBC, etc.) whose major reason for existence is to promote sustainable behaviors within one population or another. Here, the primary variety comes from differences in "what population" and "what behaviors". AASHE has its roots in higher ed administrative associations, and so emphasizes educational administration. SEI seems dominated by business/finance folk, with a strong flavor of corporate social responsibility. The Green Building Council focuses, first and foremost, on ... well ... buildings. Each of them (and their ilk) makes a legitimate effort to expand its purview beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries, in acknowledgment of the all-pervading nature of sustainability. But each is weighed down more on the side of the equation where it's carrying most of its baggage. Such is to be expected.
Then there are the campus employees who are trying to make this sustainability stuff happen. Their plates were already full even before they started getting survey requests, and information requests, and administrative inventory requests at an ever-increasing pace. "Survey fatigue" is quite real for these people. So is a sense of loss of control, and of being measured against secret standards. It doesn't contribute to positive morale in the sustainability office.
Finally, there are publications. Their overriding priority is to sell copies. Or advertising. And if including "green ratings" along with "selectivity ratings" will up sales, well, that's what they're going to do.
Now it's possible for all these various objectives to get addressed, but not if -- on a practical level -- they conflict with one another. Not if any well-meaning (or well-marketed) organization can just jump in and impose its own set of assumptions, variables, terms and requirements. Not if folks who couldn't do the job become the arbiters of how well the job is being done. Not if all the ranking and rating gets in the way of what measurements really help with the managing. And not if the managing expands to drive out the time to do useful work.
One of the things that characterizes higher education administration as opposed to other industries I've worked in is the amazing degree of cooperation that goes on. Those of us who work on campus twelve months a year come to expect that, and to notice when it's not there. Cooperation is what happens when we all work together on something all during the development process (or, at least, get the impression that we have). It's not at all the same as being told "here's what I want you to do, although of course I'm willing to listen to your suggestions".
That latter statement is what sustainability administrators have heard from the vast majority of rating/ranking/reviewing/reporting organizations. The former one describes the process by which STARS has been, and is being, developed. And it's the former one that's consistent with the set of expectations for sustainability evaluators that is laid out in the open letter.
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