October 16, 2009

University earns C on eco-report card

The University received low marks in a sustainability interest group’s annual report card, scoring an F for the fourth year in a row in endowment transparency, and a C overall.

The Sustainable Endowments Institute, which rates 332 schools, gave A-minuses—the highest grade it gave—to many of the University’s peers, including Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. The U of C’s score has trended upwards since its first grade in 2006, but this year’s is a slight decrease from 2008’s C+.

The survey showed the University’s investment in renewable energy, but also a lack of public information regarding the endowment and voting records.

For example, information on asset allocation for the endowment is only made available to trustees and senior administrators. No information regarding endowment fund allocation is available to faculty, students, or members of the school community.

Over one-quarter of the ranked schools received an F in endowment transparency. The Institute awarded 39 A’s to schools like Amherst College, which allows online access to endowment holdings information.

Raising the score calls for a substantial change in the University’s existing system. “Getting a higher grade would require the University to make more information available and make this endowment information available to the public,” Institute spokeswoman Susan Paykin said.

The failing grade has yet to prompt change in the University’s practices. Despite four endowment transparency F’s in four years, the University does not allow community or public access to voting records or endowment information.

Rather than place the burden on the University’s endowment policies, University spokesman Steven Kloehn pointed to the Institute’s grading system, currently under examination by the University and other peer institutions. “It’s unfortunate that this group chooses to put such a high emphasis on where we place our endowment,” he said. “We get downgraded for transparency, but one of the critiques of this particular survey gets down to the transparency of the methodology.”

Second-year Claire Feinberg, coordinator of the U of C’s response to the survey, agreed that the Institute’s grades were not always transparent themselves. However, she concedes that “it’s important to have something across all campuses that gauges sustainability.”

Director of Sustainability Ilsa Flanagan was surprised by the school’s low grade this year, in light of the University’s increased sustainability efforts.

For example, the University attempted to improve its grade in the green building category, including earning their first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

But the University received a disappointing D, putting the school into the bottom quartile for the green building category, far behind competitors like Yale, which has four LEED certified buildings and a formal green building policy.

The results that the Institute releases are taken very seriously, Flanagan said. “We are looking into ways we can help bolster the reliability and accuracy of these surveys so that you can truly benchmark your progress across the years.”

In spite of this year’s lackluster grade, the campus has a number of new sustainability projects. The University has already launched ReCycles, a campus bike-share program, and is developing a public awareness program to help individuals reduce their impact on the environment. “In the end, the work we are doing will speak for itself,” Flanagan said.

The Institute evaluates schools in nine categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement.