October 7, 2008

U of C makes grade gains in latest report gauging sustainability efforts

The University received a C+ from the Sustainable Endowments Institute last month, an improvement over the D+ and C- that its sustainability efforts received in the previous two years.

Only 15 schools scored an A- or better, while 17 schools flunked with a D- or worse. Of the 300 schools reviewed, the University of Chicago ranked 150th.

The institute, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization, calculates sustainability rankings based on school climate change and energy policies, dining and recycling programs, green buildings, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement. It bases its report on public information and surveys submitted by the schools.

Fourth-year Zoe VanGelder, co-chair of the University’s Sustainability Council, said the University has progressed more than the grade suggests.

“If you look at how the grade is broken down, there is continually a part of the grade that we get an F on: the endowment transparency and shareholder engagement,” she said. With those grades as low as they are, the best the University has the potential to score is a B-, she said.

Despite the University’s grades, the Institute selected the University as one of its five “Champions of Sustainability in Communities,” a category that recognizes universities that reach “beyond their campus boundaries to partner with their local communities in advancing collective sustainability goals,” according to the Institute’s website.

VanGelder welcomed new commitments from the University, such as the creation of a full-time director of sustainability position as well as membership in the Illinois Sustainable University Compact, an agreement the University undertook last year.

As a condition of its membership in the Compact, the University pledged to accomplish several tasks by the end of 2009, including the promotion of more sustainable transportation options, the reduction of carbon emissions on campus along with consideration for joining a greenhouse gas emission reduction and trading system, the purchase of non-toxic cleaning products whenever possible, and the reduction of pesticide use through the establishment of integrated pest management practices at all facilities on campus, according to the agreement.

But the University did not publicize its decision to sign the Compact.

The document was signed by Nim Chinniah, vice president for administration and chief financial officer.

“[W]e joined the program because we enthusiastically support its goals,” Chinniah wrote in an e-mail interview, referring to the University’s decision to sign onto the Compact. “Had we made a big announcement, one might question our motives,” he said.

Chinniah added that University architect Steve Wiesenthal will play a key role in achieving its pledges and that recruitment of a director of sustainability is in the final stages.

In addition to those efforts, the University is building two projects that it hopes to have certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. It currently has one such building.

According to VanGelder, the student-initiated Sustainability Council can only go so far.

“In terms of energy efficiency, it is a top-down matter,” she said, noting that only higher-level administrators can ultimately implement larger initiatives. “Sustainability is larger than the council.”

The council began as a student-run organization five years ago and has since partnered with the University administration.

Events across campus, including the Will Steger Kick-Off Event on October 14, which will bring the polar explorer to campus to discuss climate change, as well as the Battle of the Bulbs and Earth Week later on in the year, will focus on raising awareness about sustainable practices.

“We’re focused on keeping the campus community informed,” VanGelder said.