Campus makes meager green gains

By Rachel Cromidas

Few University of Chicago students would be pleased to receive a C-minus, but campus administrators and environmental organizations consider the grade, awarded by the Sustainable Endowment Institute (SEI) this week in an evaluation of the University’s environmental efforts, a laudable improvement over last year’s D+. The SEI, a non-profit organization that examines environmental research and education on university and college campuses across the U.S., released their 2008 report card on October 24.

The SEI evaluated the University of Chicago on the energy efficiency of buildings, recycling programs run by dining facilities, and campus access to public transportation, among other categories, based on public information and surveys of college officials.

But according to Zoé VanGelder, a third-year in the college and co-chair of the University’s Sustainability Council, the SEI considers “an ambiguous set of indicators,” when evaluating institutions.

“One of them happens to be transparencies in investments and endowments, and the [University] doesn’t share how our endowment is invested,” VanGelder explained, “so that knocked us down a lot in the grading.”

The University of Chicago received F’s in “Endowment Transparency” and “Shareholder Engagement,” and a C for “Investment Priorities”—the three categories that compose the SEI’s evaluation of college sustainability practices. According to the report, over half of the schools surveyed, including the University of Chicago, refused to share information about their endowment and investment activities.

Mark Orlowski, founding director of the SEI, noted that the report was intended to cover more than campus sustainability, which accounts for on-site waste management and green-building initiatives, but not the practices of the overall institution, which he said can be gauged by the activities of shareholders.

“Transparency of endowment holdings is a mechanism whereby you can foster a sort of discussion of the endowment activities of a school. But we’re not trying to pass judgment on where the endowment is invested,” Orlowski said of the categories, which reward universities for sharing information about their investment practices. “It’s all simply about the voice that your vote has with the companies that you’re already invested in. [It’s] simply about encouraging all companies that you’re invested in…to become more sustainable.”

VanGelder also attributed the low grade to the decentralization of University administrations, which makes collecting accurate information about sustainability efforts on campus difficult. Nonetheless, VanGelder speculated that the University’s grade improved over last year’s in part because administrators put more effort into responding completely to the SEI survey.

Campus Dining Services responded to the survey for the first time this year, and was therefore able to better communicate its policies of purchasing organic and fair-trade coffees and composting and recycling waste from the dining halls.

“We need to work a little more diligently on clarity in terms of how they are grading and what they are evaluating us on,” said Abby Zanarini, associate vice president of facilities, “but the University is addressing sustainability in many different ways.” For example, the U of C is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, which evaluates new construction and significant renovation projects based on their environmental sustainability, for the Searle Chemistry Building, which began renovations this week.

“While the [University of Chicago] does not have LEED-certified buildings today, all our recent and newer buildings have sustainability features included within their design and construction,” said Zanarini. “[However,] this subtlety may not be completely clear to the folks from the Sustainability Endowments Institute.”

Zanarini added that the University has also increased funding to the Sustainability Council, a group formed in spring of 2004 by students and University faculty and staff to promote environmental awareness on campus, which VanGelder said has been working for the past year on developing a Sustainability Index that will evaluate the University’s impact on the environment and identify areas of improvement.

“The methodology [of the SEI report] is not very complex,” VanGelder said, “but that’s not to say that the University is doing really well in sustainability…. We’re not golden, and we definitely wouldn’t get an A, even in our own sustainability report. The University cares about sustainability, but I wouldn’t say that it has been defined as one of its priorities yet.”