College receives ‘A-‘ for sustainability

Despite the continuing budget crunch and an unpredictable energy market, the College has managed to score a winning grade on its environmental policies this fall. On Oct. 10, the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) released the 2010 Sustainability Report Card, which awarded the College an “A-minus” grade. Out of over 300 institutions that received grades, only 26 schools, including Amherst, Middlebury and Harvard, garnered the top rating for this year. The College scored an“A” in seven of the nine indicators, earning a place among SEI’s “College Sustainability Leaders” in the new publication.

Recent graduate Mark Orlowski ’04 founded SEI in 2005 as a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies colleges and universities with large endowment holdings to both improve their own energy use and invest in companies that promote conservation. To garner publicity for its efforts, SEI has released a College Sustainability Report Card annually since 2006. The report ranks more than 300 academic institutions across nine major categories of green policy, including building design, food and recycling and transportation.

Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, is optimistic about the progress on campus in many of those categories. “We’ve really concentrated on reducing emissions this year,” she said. According to Boyd, the College has reached its goal of cutting overall emissions to ten percent below the 1990-91 levels over a decade earlier than expected. The College is also pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for all upcoming construction projects. Both Schapiro Hall and the North Academic Building achieved Gold LEED certification status this year.

Boyd added that the Zilkha Center hopes to increase local and organic items in the dining halls. “Given the state of the economy, a lot of our short-term projects will involve operational tweaks, especially around food issues,” Boyd said. This semester, the College has also introduced tray-less dining and a printing quota that yielded a 45 percent cut in paper consumption within the first month of classes.

The 2010 Report Card features more weighting to account for factors like location, which had previously lowered the sustainability grades of rural institutions. This year’s grade recognized the College’s reliance on pedestrian and bicycle access; SEI awarded the College an “A” rating for transit, a leap up from a “C” in 2009.

SEI Communications Director Lisa Chase emphasized transportation as an important factor. “We’ve really considered transit issues in particular,” Chase said. “We’re looking at how schools are encouraging students to use alternatives to cars as well as public transportation systems.”

One category in which the College still has room for improvement was endowment transparency. Williams, along with most American universities, does not release a public list of endowment holdings. Orlowski cited transparency as one of the new frontiers in college sustainability in a 2007 interview on the PBS program NOW. According to Orlowski, the managers who handle university investments often prevent institutions from having clear control over where funding is allotted.

Since its inception, SEI’s efforts have gained credibility, earning plaudits from the New York Times. Sulgi Lim, assistant director of Admissions, also spoke to the idea that sustainability awareness is spreading to the mainstream. “We’re certainly getting more questions [about sustainability] than before,” Lim said. She added that Admissions has received more questions about the Environmental Studies program in recent years and that Admissions tour guides have begun to highlight the College’s environmental efforts, such as the “Do It In The Dark” program, to prospective students.
Overall, however, the new report found a wide degree of improvement in most of the categories examined, both at the College and in general among the colleges and universities surveyed. Chase attributed this trend to a widening appreciation of an environmentally conscious campus. “Schools are excited,” Chase said. “It’s really not a competition. We want everyone to do well.”

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