Call for Better Sustainability Assessment

July 20, 2010

An open letter circulating among university sustainability officers has stirred debate about which of the many assessments of institutional sustainability is most useful and accurate.

Though the number of assessments of university sustainability has ballooned in recent years, the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s College Sustainability Report Card still typically attracts the most attention and is one of the most comprehensive. Annually grading 300 public and private institutions with the largest endowments from A to F on their environmental performance, the Report Card generates buzz each fall among sustainability officials who use it as a benchmark for tracking the effectiveness of their sustainability efforts.

Last fall, however, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education introduced the Sustainability Tracking and Rating System, and many university sustainability officials have since expressed their preference for this assessment. Unlike SEI’s Report Card — an external assessment with which institutions may choose not to cooperate — STARS is a voluntary self-assessment. Also unlike the Report Card, whose scoring formula is not fully disclosed, STARS makes clear how certain questions are weighed in generating the final score.

Paul Rowland, executive director of AASHE, says that about 150 institutions have signed as “charter participants” of the first full version of STARS. Those participating institutions include some community colleges, which Rowland notes are not rated in SEI’s Report Card. He acknowledges that STARS’ rise has been swift, but he says he is unsure if those institutions using the assessment are doing so instead of cooperating with the SEI for its Report Card.

The two-page letter, signed by two dozen university sustainability officers and formally released Tuesday, was primarily drafted by Davis Bookhart, director of the office of sustainability at Johns Hopkins University. In it, he urges external assessors of sustainability, like SEI, to change how they evaluate institutions.

“In these challenging economic times, we believe staff and university resources are best devoted to developing long-term, broad-based, and verifiable responses to the challenges of climate change and resources conservation,” he writes. “With a strong desire to move boldly and set new, higher standards for sustainability, we look forward to collaborating with independent evaluating organizations who share our high standards of excellence, especially those who facilitate public discourse on sustainability and the environment.”

The eight “principles” outlined in the letter include the order that all “evaluating organizations should disclose their process of assigning scores,” “seek to avoid the potential for misleading comparisons,” and offer an “opt out” for institutions that prefer not to participate.

Though Bookhart says the letter is not meant to imply a boycott of SEI and its Report Card, he acknowledges that some of its signees — including Johns Hopkins — have decided not to cooperate with SEI’s request for sustainability data from their institutions.

“Most of my efforts will be going to determine ways in which the process for all of these surveys could be better,” Bookhart says of his institution’s decision not to cooperate for the upcoming Report Card. “We had to make a choice, my colleagues and I, that if we do this, there could be some retribution. [SEI] could fail us. They could give us the worst grade. But we determined that we would accept that and recognize that, though we’re getting a bad grade, we’re looking long term to see that all schools benefit.”

Still, Bookhart notes that at least half of the letter’s signees have already committed to cooperating with SEI, and that those that are not are acting on their own accord, unrelated to their decision to sign the letter. The main point of this letter, he argues, is making sustainability assessors better.

“STARS is a self-evaluation tool,” Bookhart says. “It’s not an independent evaluation organization. We’d love for those organizations to change what they do and adopt those high-level principles. We hold ourselves to those standards, and we want them to do the same. If these organizations are willing to reach these high-level standards, then we’re willing to meet them halfway.”

Rowland, who notes that neither he nor AASHE was involved in the letter, says that he reads some “survey fatigue” between its lines.

“The sustainability officers I’ve talked to in the past year have indicated that they’re spending as much time filling out surveys as doing the things that the surveys are supposed to judge,” he says. “Until recently, anything that got campus sustainability in front of the public was a good thing. Now, we’ve reached a point of value where institutions have to make judgments about what they do.”

Rowland says that he does not see the sustainability assessment debate as one that pits STARS against SEI’s Report Card. He says he sees them as “partners.” For example, he noted that he has discussed how groups like SEI can use publicly available STARS data in the creation of their own rankings and assessments in the future.

Upon the release of the letter, SEI issued an official statement of its own in response.

“We take all suggestions seriously and many ideas submitted by sustainability coordinators, administrations, students as well as by our advisors, funders and independent consultants have been integrated into our research process,” writes Mark Orlowski, the group’s executive director, who did respond to requests for further comment.

“Last year, in response to suggestions, the Report Card became the only sustainability evaluation to publish (with permission) individual school survey data on hundreds of universities. Now, in response to the concerns raised in the open letter, [SEI] has initiated an internal discussion on how we can best adapt the relevant suggestions raised by the letter.”

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