Sierra Club leaves College off ranking
September 7, 2010
Although the College of William and Mary has gained national recognition from various 2010 collegiate rankings, not all have been positive.
One ranking that has gone unmentioned this year is the College’s absence from the annual Top 100 Cool Schools ranking, awarded by the Sierra Club’s Sierra Magazine.
The College did not participate in the magazine’s 2010 survey, which is sent to all colleges and universities in the United States. The survey ranks and critiques universities on factors that affect the environment, including energy supply, efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments and other initiatives.
“Choosing which of the many sustainability surveys to respond to is always a careful decision for the Committee on Sustainability and the College because they need to weigh the actual impact of the survey — potential students reached, for example — against the time and effort required to complete the survey,” Lauren Edmonds ’11, co-chair of the Science and Technical Advisory Subcommittee, said in an e-mail. “We’ve been limited before by not having enough staff to collect data and complete all of the surveys since there is only one full-time staff member dedicated to sustainability and the rest of the COS members are volunteers.”
Founded in 1892 by environmental activist John Muir, the Sierra Club is the oldest environmental organization in the United States. Along with the magazine, the club has an extensive published list of policies and initiatives. The club has a membership of over 1.3 million people, and the estimated circulation of Sierra Magazine is approximately 1 million readers.
This year’s lack of participation comes after receiving low rankings in the previous two years. In 2008, the College was labeled one of “Five Schools that Fail,” while in 2009, the College was awarded a C+ ranking.
Edmonds said that the Sierra Club’s rankings have been criticized in the past, and should not be the only criteria for grading the College.
“Other institutions have also raised concerns about the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools ranking because their methodology is not transparent, and they request a large amount of data that they do not release to the public,” she said.
Two advisors on sustainability at Ithaca College advanced those criticisms by declining to participate in the survey. One of their suggestions was for Sierra Magazine to conform to the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System. The system is marketed as a completely transparent survey, through which all results and methodologies are released to the public. However, the fee for a university to participate in the STARS survey varies anywhere from $900 to $1,400.
The College does not participate in the STARS program, but it does participate in the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s survey, which costs $700. The SEI determines grades for the 300 American universities with the highest endowments, regardless of their intention to participate. The College received a B on the SEI’s recent report card.
The Sierra Club’s 2010 survey is posted online, along with the completed survey for each participating school, the data collected and a written methodology explaining each school’s grade in an effort to increase transparency. Sierra Magazine does not charge for its survey.
The author of the Cool Schools list, Avital Binshtock, as well as the editors of the magazine, said they considered using the STARS methodology, but decided against it.
“We didn’t want to create a pay-for-play system,” Binshtock said.
The 2010 survey for Sierra totals 13 pages, of which 10 pages have questions. The survey is composed so that respondents are able to choose between several possible responses. On some questions, universities are asked to explain their answers.
“Colleges contact us year round for advice on how to gain points,” Binshtock said. “A current trend is improving in the sustainable foods category, which includes going trayless, having meatless Mondays, and purchasing food locally.”
The Princeton Review also has an environmental survey, in which the College did participate. That survey awarded the College a 93 on a scale of 60-100. The Princeton Review’s survey has 10 open-answer questions. The answers for each college, as well as how these answers translate to the numerical score given was not provided.
None of the colleges that utilize STARS received the top rating from the Princeton Review.