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Ithaca College Opts Out of ‘Cool Schools’ Rankings

The deadline to submit information for the Sierra Club magazine’s annual “Cool Schools” list came and went over the weekend — and Ithaca College let it pass. In a letter to Sierra, the college’s administrators said they declined to participate in the survey because they found it too time-consuming, opaque, and of questionable value. (A copy of the letter, which was shared on a green-colleges e-mail list, follows below.)

In an interview, Marian Brown, special assistant to the provost for sustainability and a co-author of the letter, said she understands and supports the underlying purpose of green-related surveys and ratings — to push colleges to be better.

“The problem is, with the proliferation with so many of them, each one demands a fair amount of time,” she says. The Sierra survey, in particular, asks for a lot of information that Ithaca does not collect, and she wonders how some of that information can be fairly scored.

For example, the survey asks, “Approximately what percentage of students drive to school in a car?”

“Great question,” Ms. Brown says, “but I don’t know if you figure out how meaningful that is if you’re in an urban setting or a rural campus like ours. How is that percentage useful for anyone to know?”

Avital Binshtock, an editor at Sierra, says editors revised the survey this year and “tweaked the reasearch to reflect best practices” in gathering information about college sustainability. (Past methodology has been questionable.) This year’s questions were developed with the help of conservation experts at the Sierra Club.

“This year our whole theme is total transparency,” she says, adding that the magazine will put the colleges’ survey forms along with the scoring methodology online. However, people will have to wait some time to see that information; Sierra does not want colleges to use that information to game this year’s survey.

Since Ithaca posted the letter on the e-mail list, Ms. Brown says, other colleges have contacted her to say that they wished they, too, had ignored the survey. She hopes that in future surveys, Sierra — and for that matter, other green-ratings systems — will ask questions based on established sustainability evaluations, like the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, better known as Stars.

Ithaca will continue to fill out survey forms from other organizations, like the Princeton Review, Ms. Brown says. That survey is not terribly burdensome, she says — adding that it reaches a lot of prospective students.

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March 20, 2010

Avital Binshtock, Sierra magazine’s lifestyle editor

Good day, Avital and Kyle.

We regret to inform you that we will not be submitting information for this year’s “Coolest Schools” issue. We wanted to explain why we are not participating instead of being simply non-responsive to your questionnaire.

While we applaud your efforts to acknowledge the sustainability of higher education institutions, please know that we are asked each year to respond to surveys from an increasing number of external entities seeking to evaluate our sustainability efforts. It is very time-consuming — and frustrating to us — to respond to questions about our policies and practices that require us to collect completely different data sets — or a completely different analysis of existing data — than are requested for other survey instruments. We are already very stretched in our ability to advance our own campus sustainability efforts without adding on the need to manage separate data collection and analysis efforts in order to complete such external reviews.

I would implore you to please review your survey form for next year, and mirror the questions and collected data that are being used for the AASHE STARS sustainability tracking rubric, in which we are a charter participant. In that way, it will be easier for us to respond to your questionnaire, using the same data we will be collecting and regularly updating as part of that rating and benchmarking system. The data which will be collected through the STARS program was rigorously evaluated by institutional sustainability practitioners and advisors for being the objective metrics we SHOULD be evaluating and using to measure our sustainability progress. We are strongly suggesting this “single dataset” measure to all the other external sustainability “ranking” organizations as well. I would also strongly encourage you to look at a different questionnaire response mechanism than a fill-inable PDF form.

As an additional observation, you solicit more information from us for your Cool Schools rating system than any other rating system EXCEPT the STARS program. But on your website, you provide only a simple numeric ranking of our efforts, with no information to us about how these areas are “scored” or weighted in your system. Nor do you offer any information about what schools are doing to merit ‘good’ marks (even in older rounds, the top finishers warranted only a simple paragraph description).

Please understand that we are not interested in simply “chasing the numbers” of such rating systems — it’s not about the “score” for us. We consider sustainability to be an improved decision-making framework for continuous improvement — we are always assessing how we are doing as a means to gauge how we can do even better. We participate in such rating programs because we are interested in the learning opportunities afforded to us by external entities’ showcasing of best campus sustainability practices. Your “Cool Schools” system doesn’t even allow us that “view” of what our peers are doing “right” (at least in your view) that might be replicable on our campus.

We also question whether a simple numeric score/letter grade helps student families make any kind of informed choice about the kinds of institutions that will provide their learner with a high quality education in sustainability, or a living/learning environment supportive of a sustainable lifestyle, or information about how the institution might be a compatible “fit”. You ask us a number of questions about our academic support for sustainability, yet you don’t share any of that information with your readership. So it all begs the question, what is the point of your “Cool Schools” system?

So, regretfully, given all these concerns, we are pulling out of consideration for your “Cool Schools” evaluation, at least for this year. I hope you will keep us on your contact list for possible future participation. We will evaluate how you handle sharing of information with your readership gleaned from the 2010 “Cool Schools” round, and we will review the 2011 “Cool Schools” questionnaire to see if you have addressed any of our concerns.

Thank you again for your continuing interest in supporting sustainability in higher education.We wish only the very best of luck to you.

Marian Brown, Special Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability
Mark Darling, Coordinator of Sustainability Programs for Facilities

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