Nov. 5, 2010

Smells like green spirit

The Sustainable Endowments Institute 2011 College Sustainability Report Card, which was published last week, gave the University of Chicago a C+, even though the University Administration did not respond this year to the annual survey the Institute uses to determine its grades. Explaining the University’s decision not to participate, Director for the Office of Sustainability Ilsa Flanagan said there were “significant concerns regarding the survey’s methodology, its shifting priorities, and the lack of transparency.”

The University is not alone in questioning the value of the Report Card; a number of other high-profile universities, including Columbia, NYU, and Johns Hopkins, opted not to submit data this year. But before Chicago or any other school dismisses the SEI and its grade book out of hand, they should remember the value the SEI does add.

More than anything else, the Report Card’s strength lies in its ability to draw attention to issues of sustainability, and to keep us cognizant of the role local and individual actions play in broader environmental problems. The SEI’s Report Card makes news across the country every fall because, however problematic it may be, it is nevertheless one way of measuring progress as colleges and universities work their way toward greater sustainability. Substantial progress on that front will require a prolonged effort, and the Report Card reminds people that something is happening, or mobilizes them when it isn’t.

The University can take issue with the SEI, but there’s no ignoring the benefits that come from publishing a set of measurable and deliverable objectives, and then holding yourself accountable for completing them. This is already done at other schools; Harvard, for instance, has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016.

The goals the University sets don’t need to be that ambitious or far-reaching, because even committing publicly to smaller improvements can keep departments across campus interested in increasing their sustainability. Seeing improvement year-to-year will also inspire individuals in the community to take steps that reduce their own environmental footprints. Giving people goals and timetables gets their attention, gets them involved, and gets results.

Flanagan and the administration may not be interested in the SEI’s Report Card, but that doesn’t get them or us off the hook. After we’re done pointing out the problems with the SEI, we ought to then take its example and improve upon it. If we want our work toward sustainability to be evaluated and graded in the right ways, then we ought to just do it ourselves.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief and Viewpoints Editors.