It may be silly to burn a lot of time looking over the numbers on Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” list, but people who are really interested in the methodology behind it might find this useful.
The university earned more points for its energy sources. But in looking at the 2009 survey and this year’s survey, I confirmed that Stanford’s energy mix—98 percent natural gas and 2 percent solar for electricity; 100 percent natural gas for heating—was the same. But it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison, since questions on the two surveys are slightly different and it’s not clear how Sierra calculated Stanford’s four points in this category in 2009. The editors have said they weighted energy differently this year.
But in puzzling over the two surveys, I found something unexpected when I took a closer look at the food category. That was one of the few where Stanford lost points from 2009 to 2010 — it went from 9 to 5.5 out of 10. Again, why such a sudden drop?
When I ran the numbers based on the rubric in the survey questionnaire, I came up with 8.5 for 2010. Now, I may have done the calculations wrong, and some questions and responses have wiggle room. For example, to the question of whether Stanford gets seafood approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, the university replies in part: “Yes. Stanford Dining is an institutional partner with the Seafood Watch Program. … Above 80% of seafood purchased falls into the ‘best choices’ or ‘good alternatives’ categories with a goal of 100% during the current academic year (data compilation in progress).” So does 80 percent, with a goal of 100 percent, count for a full point or not?
If Stanford did indeed earn 8.5 in that category, and assuming there are no mistakes in other surveys, the university would have had a total score of 87.6, not 84.6, making it second only to Green Mountain College in the quest to be the Coolest School.
But hold on, there’s more: Just to be sure of everything, I added up Stanford’s 2010 numbers in all 10 categories and got a final score 82.6, not 84.6. Now I’m so confused I don’t know where Stanford would have landed on the list.
This morning, I sent a note to Sierra’s editor, Avital Binshtock, who is a Stanford alumna, to get her input. I’ll post what she says here when I get a response. (Update: Ms. Binshtock responded Wednesday evening. She says Stanford’s score in the food category was a transcription error — the university actually got a 7.5 in that category. Compared with my scoring, Sierra knocked Stanford for its local-food policy: The magazine asks for the percentage of dining-hall food grown within 100 miles of campus, while Stanford defines “local” as food grown within 150 miles.)
Again, this might be a lot of fretting over nothing, but clearly sustainability directors out there have gotten worked up about these sorts of rankings, their accuracy, and how their institutions rate. If you’re one of them, you might want to double-check your institution’s score.