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How Does ‘Sierra’ Magazine Come Up With Its List of Greenest Colleges?

The recent release of Sierra magazine’s list of greenest campuses got us thinking again about a question: “How do they come up with that list?” We have been critical of green rankings in the past — and this list, like others, sets off B.S. alarms. How did Oberlin College go from being the greenest school in 2007 to eighth place less than a year later? Harvard University, last year’s No. 2, didn’t even make this year’s top-10 list. Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, and, geeze, the entire University of California system — all of which were in the “10 that get it” last year — apparently don’t get it anymore.

So we picked up the phone and called Sierra.

We got Michael Fox, a researcher at the magazine who spent a few months working on this project, and he explained the methodology. He said colleges won points for green practices in 10 areas: green building (or energy efficiency for those not building), energy supply, food, curriculum, purchasing policies, transportation, waste management, investment priorities, student activism, and the administration’s commitment to sustainability.

But some of these areas are easier to measure than others. How do you rate an administration’s commitment to sustainability? How do you rate student activism? “We talked to some students and got their feel for what’s going on,” Mr. Fox said. “Do they feel like a lot of students are engaged or just a small group of active people? Things like that. We just basically assigned a number, 1 through 10, relative to other schools.”

In other areas, like the green building, Sierra relied on colleges to provide accurate information. “It’s just me and one other person,” Mr. Fox said. “We don’t have the resources to go out to every school and actually see if they are doing what they say they are doing.”

Asked whether small colleges with green cred but less marketing savvy — like Unity College, the College of the Atlantic, or Sterling College — would have a hard time making the list, Mr. Fox acknowledged that the Cool Schools list was “not a perfect assessment,” given his resources. “But I think we did a pretty good job. I mean, if a school is really doing a lot, I find it hard to believe that they are not going to market it at all.”

In his item about Sierra’s Cool Schools, The Chronicle’s Richard Monastersky wondered why the list didn’t honor some green community colleges, like Cape Cod Community College or the Los Angeles Community College District. Well, there’s a simple explanation: Sierra didn’t consider them.

“They don’t reach a significant enough body of people to really be worth taking into consideration,” Mr. Fox said. “I mean, the only people who go to community colleges are people who live in the city, so it doesn’t help a reader in Maine to learn about a community college in New Hampshire.”

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