A Sustainability Report Card

Group gives high grades to colleges' environmental efforts, lower marks for their endowment practices and transparency.
January 24, 2007

Seldom has a week gone by this academic year without an announcement that a college has vowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions or purchase only locally grown produce. Green building is spreading and institutions are hiring sustainability coordinators to help facilitate environmental programs on campus.  

The Sustainable Endowments Institute, a two-year-old group that studies university investment policies, has kept tabs on the slew of green initiatives and whether colleges invest in green-friendly ways. In its  College Sustainability Report Card being released today, many of the nation's top colleges receive high marks for their campus greening practices. But many of those same colleges receive much lower grades in categories that measure green investment decisions and willingness to share information about how they use their endowment money.  

Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the institute, said the group wants to show the correlation between a college's sustainability practices and the way in which it invests in energy resources or companies. He said that students in a previous institute survey expressed frustration that they could not get information from administrators about the endowment investments.  

“This is an endeavor to connect the dots,” Orlowski said. “Great work is happening on campus, and while green buildings and dining hall food is visible, you can't taste or feel endowment practices, which is one reason why they don't get as much attention." 

For its report card, the institute surveyed 100 colleges in the United States and Canada with the largest endowments, based on the most recent data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.  The institutions have combined holdings of more than $258 billion, or about 75 percent of all higher education endowment funds, according to the report. Orlowski said the institute didn't have the resources to poll hundreds of colleges, and using data from the top 100 endowment colleges was the easiest way to get both private and public colleges represented with geographic diversity.

The institute looked at public data from colleges and gave a letter grade in each of seven categories: administration, food and recycling, green building, climate change and energy, shareholder engagement, investment priorities and endowment transparency.

Only six colleges earned ‘A’ grades for their endowment transparency: Dartmouth College, Williams College, University of Wisconsin at Madison, University of Texas at Austin, University of Tennessee and Purdue University.  A host received flunking grades in that category. By comparison, 30 institutions earned the top mark for their administrative actions in becoming a greener campus.

In the endowment spending categories, colleges were rewarded for making shareholder votes available to the public; involving students in the process of creating shareholder responsibility guidelines; and investing in renewable energy and community development loan funds. In the investment priorities category, no college received an 'F' grade because the institute determined that each did its best to maximize profit (a measurement of economic sustainability).

Matt Hamill, senior vice president for advocacy and issue analysis at NACUBO, said the report illustrates higher education's role in becoming a leader in incorporating sustainable practices.

"Across the country, institutions are risng to meet this opportunity," he said. "However, the grading system employed in this report appears to give virtually equal weight to issues of disclosure of investment decisions and proxy voting.  The power of what we do as a community, and what we teach our children, seem to far outweigh any other power we might have." 

Colleges in the report also earned points for erecting green buildings, serving organic food and articulating official energy policies and plans. Institutions that pledged action were given modest points, while those that had already begun implementing plans or had completed initiatives were rewarded with a higher score.

Orlowski said he didn't find a strong correlation between the size of the college's endowment and its overall sustainability grade, although endowment giants Harvard University, Stanford University and Dartmouth College were among the top grade earners in the institute's report card. Twenty-two colleges earned ‘B’ grades overall, while nearly two-thirds earned a 'C' or below.

“You don’t need a high endowment to be active [in environmental practices]," Orlowski said. "Money helps, but ultimately innovation is what wins."

Jeff Koseff, co-director of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, said he is pleased with the categories and methodology used in the report card -- though he would include use of water and land stewardship.  

Stanford received five 'As' and one 'B' in the assessment. Its only 'C' grade came in endowment transparency. Koseff said he has lobbied the university to create a green endowment fund that could be used to fund projects.

"For me, who gets to see the endowment hasn't been as big of a deal as how we get to use it to better our green practices," Koseff said.

Yale University also received a low grade for endowment transparency (the report notes that shareholder voting information isn't available to the public). Yale has made public an energy investment wish list, said Julie Newman, director of Yale University's Office of Sustainability.

Newman said it is gratifying to see a group recognize the college's recent practices. “We’re on a trajectory of committing to a sustainable campus, but we’re still in the early stages of understanding the depth and breadth of our actions,” she said.

Debra Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, said the report is valuable because it creates a best practices list for colleges to use and gives a full picture of sustainability.

“Analysis of endowment decisions has been a missing piece in many discussions about creating a sustainable future,” Rowe said in an e-mail.


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