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Smells like green spirit

The University should take the initiative to set its own sustainability goals

The Sustainable Endowments Institute 2011 College Sustainability Report Card, which was published last week, gave the University of Chicago a C+, even though the University Administration did not respond this year to the annual survey the Institute uses to determine its grades. Explaining the University’s decision not to participate, Director for the Office of Sustainability Ilsa Flanagan said there were “significant concerns regarding the survey’s methodology, its shifting priorities, and the lack of transparency.”

The University is not alone in questioning the value of the Report Card; a number of other high-profile universities, including Columbia, NYU, and Johns Hopkins, opted not to submit data this year. But before Chicago or any other school dismisses the SEI and its grade book out of hand, they should remember the value the SEI does add.

More than anything else, the Report Card’s strength lies in its ability to draw attention to issues of sustainability, and to keep us cognizant of the role local and individual actions play in broader environmental problems. The SEI’s Report Card makes news across the country every fall because, however problematic it may be, it is nevertheless one way of measuring progress as colleges and universities work their way toward greater sustainability. Substantial progress on that front will require a prolonged effort, and the Report Card reminds people that something is happening, or mobilizes them when it isn’t.

The University can take issue with the SEI, but there’s no ignoring the benefits that come from publishing a set of measurable and deliverable objectives, and then holding yourself accountable for completing them. This is already done at other schools; Harvard, for instance, has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016.

The goals the University sets don’t need to be that ambitious or far-reaching, because even committing publicly to smaller improvements can keep departments across campus interested in increasing their sustainability. Seeing improvement year-to-year will also inspire individuals in the community to take steps that reduce their own environmental footprints. Giving people goals and timetables gets their attention, gets them involved, and gets results.

Flanagan and the administration may not be interested in the SEI’s Report Card, but that doesn’t get them or us off the hook. After we’re done pointing out the problems with the SEI, we ought to then take its example and improve upon it. If we want our work toward sustainability to be evaluated and graded in the right ways, then we ought to just do it ourselves.


The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief and Viewpoints Editors.

  • JohnDoe

    Regardless of the report card, the University should look at cutting energy use because it would lower operating costs.

    Examples of savings:
    Have the computers in the libraries go into standby during the day when not in use for x number of minutes and off at night. Turn off more of the lights in the reg. Does the entire building need to be lit when it is closed?

    Too bad they can’t lower housing costs and charge students for the electricity they use. So many times in Max, I saw people with their heaters on and the windows open. Or devices and lights left on when no one was around…

  • George

    A bloated department that accomplishes nothing more than sustain excuses. Look at all the high-achieving universities that CONTINUE to participate. This is a sustained joke …………….

  • Tippie

    Something else smells like something else. Do you remember the Maroon headlines of a few years ago, “New facilities VP an expert on sustainable campuses.”

    That was on April 14, 2008. Shortly thereafter a new Sustainability department was created. Then a massively bloated management services department was created. Then year after year our ratings for sustainability continued to fall.

    I’m sorry but this is incompetence. It’s a joke when you have more people in administration than those union employees doing actual work. That’s why students and faculty are not getting basic services from Facilities that allow one to keep one’s windows closed during winter months – I know students whose heating system doesn’t work properly and requires opening windows because it’s too hot in their room.

    With all those paper-pushers tripping over each other you’d think they would have the capacity to participate in some sort of sustainability comparison forum.

    It’s a shame that the UofC, instead of being the leader in sustainability is a college drop out. If you ask a drop out why they’ve quit, you typically hear similar explanations as Facilities gave recently.

    Yes Facilities, participation in programs such as The Sustainable Endowments Institute is hard work. There is no excuse for excuses not to participate. The UofC should be a leader in this important area not a paper-pushing-bureaucratically-bloated-bumbling-bull-shooting-bureaucracy.