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Amid Continuing Controversy, a New Green Report Card Rates Colleges Again

The Sustainable Endowments Institute has released its 2011 Green Report Card, its attempt to assess the environmental sensibilities of a limited number of mostly well-endowed institutions.

Emphasis on “attempt” there: The SEI, along with others who have tried to rate and rank colleges for their green efforts, has been subject to increasingly vocal criticism from the college-sustainability community. While the Green Report Card may have played a vital role pushing green efforts in its early years, many sustainability directors now see the SEI’s survey as cumbersome, incomplete, inaccurate, and enigmatic.

Mark Orlowski, executive director of the SEI and a 2004 graduate of Williams College, could be seen at the recent sustainability conference in Denver, cornered by some sustainability directors who seemed to be interrogating him or lecturing him about his survey.

So, with that in mind, let us highlight the top-scoring colleges in this year’s edition, all of which earned A’s: Brown and Yale Universities; Dickinson, Oberlin, and Pomona Colleges; and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Other high-scoring institutions included Colorado College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of British Columbia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the A-minus category, along with dozens of others.

Critics of the process have argued that the grades are suspect, in part because they are derived in a somewhat mysterious fashion from surveys the colleges fill out themselves—which might lead to greenwashing and other ways to game the system. And refusing to fill out the survey may not help one’s marks.

Rebecca Caine, a senior research fellow with the institute (who also just graduated from Oberlin College), said that she and other staff members at the institute cobble together a grade for nonparticipating colleges from past surveys, online news reports, data on the institutions’ Web sites, and other easily available information. Traveling to the colleges to assess green efforts firsthand is impossible, she said.

Thirty-one colleges did not respond to this year’s survey, and seven of those were colleges that had signed a letter asking the SEI and other green-rating organizations to adhere to a set of principles, like transparency and accountability. Among those institutions, the grades of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Colorado at Boulder fell a notch, while the grades of New York University, Tufts University, and the University of New Mexico were static. The grades of Columbia University and Barnard College went up slightly.

That doesn’t mean officials at Columbia were happy. Ms. Caine, who compiled information for Columbia’s grade, said officials there complained about the assessment and refused to certify the accuracy of what she had gathered. “I tried so hard, too,” Ms. Caine said.

In an e-mail message, Nilda Mesa, Columbia’s assistant vice president for environmental stewardship, said that the university did not comment on ratings and rankings systems, but that the university was “committed” to sustainability, in both its operations and its academics.

Early this year, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System, or Stars, a comprehensive green-rating system developed by the college-sustainability community. Many sustainability directors have said that they may concentrate only on the Stars rating system and ignore others, like the Green Report Card.

Ms. Caine said the response rate for this year’s survey was down slightly from last year’s survey, which had the highest response rate since the institute started rating colleges, in 2007.

“It is a worry that we have,” Ms. Caine said. “We are having a lot of conversations about how we are going to deal with this in the future.” She said the institute may start pulling data from Stars to create its ratings, but she also acknowledged that could mean a lot more work.

Whatever criticisms people might raise about the SEI and its report card, this year’s survey did convey one unassailable truth: Green efforts at colleges have grown significantly over the years. Almost 80 percent of colleges listed some kind of green-building policy on the institute’s survey, compared with 22 percent in 2006, while 95 percent had established a sustainability committee, compared with 40 percent four years ago.

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