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Universities and Colleges: Learning Together

By William D Alessandro on January 18, 2012 at 2:50pm.

Content:

In 1995 Yale University settled an enforcement action with the US Environmental Protection Agency.  The violations were against hazardous waste laws.  Life within the nation’s ivory towers has never been the same.

State and regional inspectors began an environmental crackdown on institutions of higher learning.  Over the years the feds nailed many notables for breaches of various environmental laws.  Victims include Georgetown, Boston University, MIT, and the University of California.  Even University of Guam was not beyond the reach of the enforcers.

The University of Hawaii paid a huge $505,000 cash penalty (not to mention having to spend $1.2 million on environmental improvement projects).   As recently as one year ago, Drew University handed $145,000 to EPA for mismanagement at its campus in New Jersey.

The type of audits EPA encouraged at schools since the mid-1990s is reflected in the contents of Princeton University’s third sustainability report . The 36-page document tabulates progress with greenhouse gas emissions reductions, building energy conservation, water usage and waste minimization, stormwater controls, transportation demand management, and savings in dining halls and purchasing.   A few other areas are covered, too.  The report talks about landscape stewardship and describes strategies to advance sustainability in academics, research, and off-campus programs. 

Princeton’s report is the outcome of the university’s sustainability plan, a 2008 framework that sets priorities and dates for their completion.   (Princeton’s primary goal is to reduce direct carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.)  The report serves a limited purpose.  It is an annual update of achievements against the plan. 

The 2011 Sustainability Report for Ball State University is a comprehensive disclosure, better and more attractively laid out than most, typical of those published in the private sector.

Ball State’s second sustainability report follows the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines.   Indiana’s third-largest university (22,000 students) declares itself an A level of disclosure measured against the requirements of the standard.  Not every GRI indicator is applicable.  Explanations are provided when they are left out.  

The first sections present the organisational structure of Ball State and the reporting parameters.  The next six sections describe findings relating to the environmental, social, and economic performance of the institution, product responsibility, and human rights and labour issues, and engagement — topics beyond Princeton’s materials and technological frame of reference.

Communication:

Princeton’s report is not so much written as it is compiled.   The parade of achievements follows a set pattern.  The report reviews each goal: a sentence describes the strategy; a statement summarises progress overall; a more detailed list fleshes out the accomplishments; and, finally, an explanation comes for what will happen in the short term and over the long haul.  The report is as matter-of-fact as one can be.

The university’s Office of Sustainability and Office of Communications produced the Princeton report.   The director of sustainability, Shana Weber, established the office in 2006.  Weber helped guide the process that led to the university’s sustainability plan.  (She happens to have earned a Ph.D. at Indiana University, the state’s largest.)

The Princeton’s annual review is thorough  but tedious.  Page follows page of facts more or less in isolation: a  computer facility is designed to save 33% more energy; 600 steam traps or more will be installed throughout the HVAC system;  sustainable food purchases increased to 66%; 11% of the university’s 6,364 toner and ink cartridges were remanufactured; from 2006 to 2010, overall campus landfill waste decreased by 13%; nearly a mile of walkways was added to the campus, contributing to a total of about 55 miles; residence hall water usage dropped by more than 30% or nearly 18 million gallons;  111 undergraduate students from 22 majors interned on environmental topics in 21 countries. 

The facts, figures, and ideas for improvement that pour from this cornucopia of environmental reporting overwhelm any one person’s willingness to read much less to digest.

Ball State’s report is the output of Building Better Communities Student Fellows.  This calls for a brief explanation. 

Building Better Communities is a learning project for faculty and students.  They tackle real problems and find solutions for Indiana businesses and organizations.  Gwen  White, a certified public accountant and professor, directed six students on the reporting team.  University personnel gave their input.  Data on the Ball State website and elsewhere on the Internet were used as sources of information. 

The report notes.  “It is the authors’ hope that the publication of BSU’s second annual GRI Sustainability Report will further highlight the need of the university to more thoroughly track information regarding Ball State University’s level of sustainability for use in future reporting.” 

The report features an unusual technique.  Numbers in the margins down the sides of the pages match the content to GRI indicators and Stars credit scoring criteria (see below). 

Credibility:

Nothing in Princeton’s report raises suspicions about veracity.   Equally, nothing whatsoever is said about assurance.  The report does not even tell what standard is used to calculate greenhouse gas emissions.  Verification is simply not addressed.

Princeton does say that they signed up to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (Stars).   The self-reporting framework is a product of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (https://stars.aashe.org/).  

Judy Walton, a pioneer of green building consulting, founded the association in 2001 for colleges in the Western U.S. and Canada.  The network has expanded (internationally as well).  Stars was launched in January 2010.   The rating tool has four levels of performance (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) based on points accumulated on sustainability  criteria.  All areas of the triple bottom line are covered, including public engagement. 

Ball State already filed its first Stars report in 2011.  The university earned a silver rating.  Of special value to reporters at other campuses is a 7-page table in the annex.  It lines up GRI content requirements with the Stars credit scoring categories.

As for the sustainability report based on GRI: “Every effort has been made to report the most recent and accurate data… .”  The Ball State authors also say that they will seek external assurance after they publish this report.  They write: “It is important to note that there is no existing policy in place for seeking such assurance, and the development of said policy is identified as a need for future reporting.”
 
Recommendations:

1.  The Princeton report is sensible for its purpose.  But the content should address a broader range of campus sustainability issues. 

2.  Make the relationships between GRI and Stars clearer.

3.  A number of scholarly articles delve into the unique factors that constitute sustainability for institutions of higher education.  Consider reporting on issues they reveal. 

William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters.  He also edits Crosslands Bulletin http://www.crosslandsbulletin.com covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.