It’s not that easy being green

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September 5, 2008

1:34 PM

After conducting a recent analysis of environmentally-minded university campuses across the country, Sierra Club Magazine placed the College of William and Mary in its “Five That Fail” category.
Given the College’s academic reputation, many students have likely never received a failing grade on anything. Faced with this F, student activist groups, as well as the administration, seem to have responded strongly with both confusion and denial.

“They left out everything else that we’re doing,” Caroline Cress ’10 said. “We have a lot of things going on, and we do have a long way to go, but I would not say we are in the ‘bottom five.’”

Cress is a member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, which has been following the various rankings and policies of other schools as an independent study project. She started keeping tabs on other schools last year, and it turned into personal research. She believes the ranking stems from some “weird timing” on the part of the Sierra Club, which published its report in the magazine’s most recent issue.

“At the end of last year, over the summer and at the beginning of this year, we saw all the results of the last two years of work,” she said. “We had been working for two years with little success only to see it all come together. There is a widespread feeling of positivity within SEAC. We pushed so hard, and green fees had so much support that the administration caught on.”

Green fees were a measure introduced by SEAC and passed by the Student Assembly last spring to include a $30 fee within each student’s tuition to cover the costs of sustainable practices on campus. The Food Sustainability campaign of SEAC has seen many improvements working with the dining halls. Dining services decided to donate waste to make biofuel, allowed SEAC to plant an organic garden behind the Caf, and introduced “Trayless Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

A new student activism group, Green Revolution in Progress, was formed last spring by students who wanted to draw student focus to the flow of information relating to current environmental issues through public events such as speaker forums, movie screening and public lectures, said Connor Horne ’10, a co-founder.
“The most concise way to explain GRIP is through its mission statement,” he said. “There are serious gaps in the flow of information and resources between elements of the William and Mary community and the greater local, regional and global communities.”

The College has high hopes for the year in terms of sustainability. GRIP is optimistic after hearing that Reveley’s convocation speech, focused on sustainability and improvements in the dining halls. The group members also think that the ranking indicates a need for their contributions.

“The Sierra Club’s ranking seems to further highlight the need for a group like GRIP. We hope that providing information to what we believe to be a growing number of people in the Williamsburg community who want to become involved in environmental sustainability actions,” Horne said.

In Reveley’s convocation speech last Friday, he specifically announced the creation of a Sustainability Committee, considered by many to be the most important recent improvement.

The new sustainability committee will be comprised of groups focusing on specific environmental policy issues. For example, they will delegate the money collected from the green fees.

Cress said that the ranking seems to be somewhat based on the fact that Reveley declined to sign the President’s Climate Commitment last year. The PCC is primarily concerned with climate change; it asks presidents to pledge to a loose framework to achieve carbon neutrality in the coming years. Four comparable Virginia state schools have signed so far: George Mason University, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Norfolk State University.

“I think it’s very limited to judge our school by whether or not we joined the PCC. I do think that our school is doing a lot, but we also have a long way to go,” Charlotte Davis ’10, co-facilitator of SEAC, said. “And I think Reveley made that clear in his speech — that we’re doing great things but we need to keep doing great things this year and beyond.”

Vice President for Development Anna Martin echoes SEAC’s disappointment with the ranking system.
“It is not a fair assessment of our program,” she said. “I think it completely misrepresents the facts. [We probably got a low score] because they didn’t take the time to ask us about our program. They simply made assumptions based on a little knowledge — always a dangerous thing.”

Dennis Taylor teaches marine science at Virginia Institute of Marine Science and introduction to environmental science classes here on campus. He and Linda Butler, interim dean at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, read the article about a week ago and responded with a letter to the editor.

“Our letter questions the assertion made in a single paragraph, without any supporting data or citations to substantiate the claim being made, and points out the increased focus on sustainable practices that has occurred over several years at W&M,” he said. “We have requested that the authors provide their data and sources so that we might evaluate them. As of this writing, we have had no response to this request.”
Last fall the Sustainable Endowments Institute gave the College a D- in environmental sustainability in a report they released; the ranking was based on a number of factors, including investment policies and the number of “green” buildings. But the College just received a grade of 84 on sustainability from the Princeton Review.
Taylor, Butler and Martin all cite the Princeton Review as a fairer evaluation.

“That’s a solid B, not a failure, and I believe it is a more fair grade for William and Mary,” Martin said. “We admit we have a way to go, but we have a policy, a commitment, some solid accomplishments and a plan to move us forward.”

Cress said that it is important to look ahead to new rankings, as we realize we are taking our first steps toward sustainability.

“The people who do know about the ranking are disappointed that all their work has been totally overlooked,” she said. “But it is better to look ahead to future rankings to try to get accomplishments that are very real.”

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