Colleges Say They Expect Their Green Raters to Measure Up

July 20, 2010

For years now, sustainability directors and other college officials have balked at various organizations that strive to rate institutions on their green programs and sensibilities—among them, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Sierra magazine, and the Princeton Review. The survey processes have been cumbersome, the rating schemes have been unclear, and the results have been inconsistent—and, for many institutions, disappointing.

Now a group of about two dozen leading colleges have signed on to a letter that pushes back at the green raters—if gently. The letter, which was released on Monday, is framed positively, saying that the signatories will work with any green-rating system that adheres to eight principles. Those principles include making the rating process open, using uniform measurements in assessing sustainability efforts, and allowing colleges to opt out, among others.

The underlying and unstated possibility is that the signatories will not work with ratings programs that do not follow these guidelines.

Signatories to the letter are Agnes Scott, Barnard, Ithaca, and Spelman Colleges; Columbia, Emory, George Mason, George Washington, Johns Hopkins, McGill, New York, Pacific Lutheran, Stanford, Tufts, and Wake Forest Universities; the New School; the Universities of Buffalo, Colorado at Boulder, Colorado at Colorado Springs, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, and Vermont; and Washington University in St. Louis.

Davis Bookhart, sustainability director at Johns Hopkins, was one of the people involved in crafting the letter, which he said was offered to a relatively small and diverse "leadership group" of institutions.

He said that the sustainability-ratings systems "have the potential to do a lot of good" and could be "great for benchmarking."

But sustainability advocates also wanted to confront what they saw as deficiencies in the systems—even though doing so might carry risks.

"We are at the early stage of campus-sustainability programs, and these rankings could help in the long run," he says. "It really is a time to get things right and bring the standards up. If we take a short-term hit, that's fine, as long as we have a long-term goal that improves the sustainability of our campuses."

The letter's eight points are laid out succinctly. According to the letter, sustainability-ratings groups should:

  • Have an open scoring process.
  • Be accountable for the information they publish.
  • Disclose the credentials of the people who make evaluations.
  • Consider the diversity of organizations pursuing sustainability.
  • Recognize that some colleges are pursuing long-term projects over short-term ones.
  • Use uniform criteria, consistent with established sustainability measurements.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Allow colleges to opt out.

The letter is striking in that it is framed positively. There are no stark demands, no threats. "There were a lot of discussions about that—whether we should draw a line in the sand," Mr. Bookhart says. "Ultimately we felt what would be most effective is if we could keep this positive and take the high road. ... We thought that we really didn't need a stick if we had a carrot: If you're willing to take that path, we will work with you. We will have high expectations."

Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which produces one of the more prominent and controversial ratings systems, said in a statement that the institute appreciates the ideas the colleges offered. "In response to the concerns raised in the open letter, the Sustainable Endowments Institute has initiated an internal discussion on how we can best adapt the relevant suggestions raised by the letter," he wrote. "To expedite our response, this week I will phone all the sustainability coordinators who signed the letter to listen to their individual concerns and to solicit their specific ideas for improvement."

There are no promises in the statement that the institute will follow the suggestions.

The colleges' letter seems to offer long-awaited relief to a number of campus sustainability administrators who have been struggling with the ratings systems in recent years.

"This comes after a year or two of all of my colleagues talking about this at every opportunity that they have to get together or talk on the phone," says Gioia Thompson, sustainability director at the University of Vermont. "We would like these surveys and measurements to help us do our work. When you have so many people asking you what you're doing from so many different angles, it's a bit like putting a plant in the ground and then you keep on pulling it out to see how the roots are doing. If you leave it in the ground for a few minutes, maybe it can grow some roots."

But Ms. Thompson cannot say now whether she will ignore surveys from the institute or other organizations if they do not follow the suggestions laid out in the letter. It depends on whether the surveys are easy to fill out and how the ratings groups—and other institutions—react, she says.

"I don't want to say no now, because I want to give them the opportunity to improve," she says.

The group of signatories to the letter will probably inspire other colleges to respond as well. Mitchell S. Thomashow is president of Unity College, an institution that has robust sustainability programs but is often ignored by ratings groups because the college is very small. He called the letter a "fantastic" statement.

Sustainability is "an emerging field, and it's very easy to take advantage of hype and good intentions, when the most important thing is that we work collaboratively to develop coherent, resilient, and enduring sustainable practices." he says. "This letter is an important step in that direction."

A discussion about the letter will be hosted on the Web site for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.