The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, is one of the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organizations in the United States. These days, the Club’s planet-friendly mission has integrated itself quite successfully into the current growth of green college campus initiatives nationwide, especially with the release of its sixth annual “Cool Schools” list in SIERRA magazine. A total of 96 schools responded to the voluntary survey, which comprised of 300 pages (not including the supplemental questions) and meticulously analyzed and measured each campus’ success in areas such as energy supply, efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, and financial investments. The survey was open to all four-year undergraduate colleges and universities in the country.
The survey, officially named the Campus Sustainability Data Collector, is new to this year’s ranking process and the result of the collective efforts of the Sierra Club, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI), and the Princeton Review. This collaboration aimed to reduce the amount of time spent by campus staffers completing individual surveys for each organization, as had been the standard in the past, while also creating a broader, deeper look into various environmental efforts of each campus. The team succeeded in streamlining the schools’ reporting process to more closely resemble the way campuses already collect and report data.
After evaluating schools’ responses to the survey, final ranking decisions were based on the scoring key, which credited schools with specific point increments for certain initiatives, goals, programs, impact, etc. The key emphasized the Sierra Club’s own environmental priorities and rewarded schools that do an admirable job of measuring and diminishing their impact.
Though no school achieved total sustainability (most schools earned scores in the low 700s and high 600s out of a possible 894.5 points), many universities are making marked progress in environmental improvements.
In the end, Sierra determined the top 10 “Cool Schools” for 2012 were:
1. University of California, Davis 709.17 points
2. Georgia Institute of Technology 704.89 points
3. Stanford University 681.48
4. University of Washington 679.56 points
5. University of Connecticut 667 points
6. University of New Hampshire 653.36 points
7. Duke University 642.32 points
8. Yale University 640.08 points
9. University of California, Irvine 628.48 points
10. Appalachian State University 627.92 points
The number one school, University of California, Davis, distinguished itself by establishing rigorous green purchasing standards, diverting nearly 70 percent of campus trash from landfills, and offering an extensive transportation system that includes a student-run, natural gas-powered Unitrans bus service, 42 miles of bike paths, and 21,000-plus bike parking spaces on its 5,300-acre campus. The school’s Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 2000 levels, Smart Lighting Initiative to reduce electrical use by 60 percent, and purchasing of more local and organic food products for campus dining also helped put Davis at the top.
SIERRA hopes the magazine’s rankings will not only act as a guide for prospective students seeking a way to compare colleges based on their environmental commitments but also to spur competition, create aspirational standards, and publicly reward the institutions that work so diligently to protect the planet.
“Over the last six years, SIERRA has been privileged to connect with and learn from traditional institutions evolving in nontraditional ways,” said Bob Sipchen, SIERRA magazine’s editor-in-chief. “With their ever growing emphasis on environmental responsibility, these schools are channeling the enthusiasm of their students, who consistently cite climate disruption and other environmental issues as the most serious challenges their generation must confront, while demonstrating leadership for other civic institutions.”
Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.