Letter to the Editor: Emphasis on Sustainability

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September 9, 2010

11:27 PM

The Sept. 6 Flat Hat article by reporter Ben Huber concerning the College of William and Mary’s absence from the 2010 Sierra Club “Cool School” rankings contains several errors and assumptions that need to be addressed. Much of this response would have been unnecessary had Huber followed the advice given him Aug. 31 by Vice President for Student Affairs Virginia Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 to contact the co-chairs of the Committee on Sustainability. We never heard from him, and thus were unable to provide him with accurate information for his article.

The question of the College’s participation in the growing number of green surveys is a matter that COS takes seriously. We think it is important that the College community understands the reasoning behind our choices of survey instruments. Our criteria are simple and straightforward: First, the survey methodologies and methods of analysis must be clear, transparent and easily understood by readers of the survey. Second, the surveying institution must provide some clear indication of how the various areas of sustainability are weighted and evaluated to allow us to make comparisons from year to year and between the various surveys. Finally, the surveying institution must not require a fee to participate in its survey.

Now for the errors and omissions: In his article Huber state that the Endowment Institute charges $700 to participate in its survey. This statement is simply incorrect. EI charges $700 only if the institution wishes larger coverage in its final publication. We decided not to pursue this option because it appeared to provide an opportunity for advertising more than anything else. The EI survey is of no cost to us, and its survey is one of the most comprehensive in the field. In the EI 2010 survey, the College received a B overall, with an A in Administration, Student Involvement and Investment Priorities, placing us in a tie for first among Virginia schools. The 2011 survey has not been released yet.

He also suggest that the Princeton Review (which gave us a score of 93 out of 100 points in 2010) does not publish its methodologies. A little research on the Princeton Review website would have revealed this suggestion as also incorrect. The Princeton Review describes its green rating methodology at this link: http://www.princetonreview.com/green-rating-methodology.aspx.

We developed our criteria for choosing among green surveys based on the rapid proliferation of surveys, the costs associated with completing the surveys, problems in transparency and inconsistencies among the various surveys. As Huber’s article suggests, our concerns are consistent with those held by other institutions of higher education. You cite one example of that concern involving Ithaca College and the Sierra Club reported in the “Chronicle of Higher Education”: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Ithaca-College-Opts-Out-of/22000/. Additional research would have revealed that other institutions share our concerns about the inconsistencies and burdens posed by the different rating systems. See, for example, “Chronicle of Higher Education”: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/How-Does-Sierra-Magazine/5270/ and: http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Say-They-Expect-Their/123617/. The latter underscores the institutional cost, measured in terms of time and energy, required to complete the surveys, and also contains inconsistencies in format, types of data collected, and weighting preferences. Some of the surveys also do not provide a level playing field for participating institutions. For example, the Sierra Club metrics receive an increased weight for the use of alternative energy. This introduces a severe geographic bias that cannot be overcome by sheer will, commitment or passion for the environment. With the exception of Radford University, no other Virginia public universities appear among the 162 participants in the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” for 2010. Energy sources are important, but they are not uniformly accessible in different geographic areas, and this variation may have affected participation by Virginia schools.

Our particular concern with the Sierra Club began with its publication of “The Five That Fail” in 2008. The Sierra Club began to publish its list of “Cool Schools” rankings in 2007 and has continued this practice to the present. They have only published their “Five That Fail” list once, in 2008, and the College appeared at the top. That was also the year during which COS began its work, and we quite naturally wrote to the editor of the Sierra Club magazine to ask what was used as a basis for its claim, since the College had no institutional record of submitting a survey to the Sierra Club. After the club’s initial reply failed to reveal the source of the information or basis of the claim, we again requested an opportunity to review their survey data and sources. We have yet to receive a reply.

When the survey for 2010 was received in March of this year, the College made the decision not to participate until we received a response to our request. In a letter to Allison Chin, Sierra Club president, which was copied to Carl Pope, executive director, and Michael Brune, incoming executive director, we explained our concerns regarding the Sierra Club’s survey process and about their basis for listing the College as one of “Five That Fail” in 2008. We indicated our willingness to participate in their survey should they provide information about their survey data and sources for their 2008 listing for the College. Six months later, we still have not received a response. In contrast to what Huber’s article suggests, then, the College chose not to participate until it received an adequate explanation for the 2008 report.

Our own research strongly suggests that no Sierra Club surveys were taken in 2007 and 2008. The first genuine survey taken by the Sierra Club seems to have occurred in 2009, the year we participated. If we are incorrect about any of this, the Sierra Club has had over two years to correct our understanding by providing the basis for their reporting.

The Sierra Club has a distinguished history, and it is understandable that it would join in efforts to appraise sustainability in higher education, as this is where future environmental leaders are currently being educated. Looking over the 2010 survey, it is encouraging to see they are now making progress toward a more credible product. But that wonderful history and the club’s present progress does not obviate the need for good ethical reporting, nor does it address and provide relief from the harm done by the club’s publication of the “Five That Fail” in 2008. Theirs is the obligation to substantiate their claim, not only to the College, but also to all five institutions. We will continue to pursue our interest in a full and fair disclosure by the Sierra Club. The harm done by the Sierra Club is evident in this very Flat Hat article: once branded, forever tainted. When a news source publishes something, it should be right in every sense of the word.

The College has a distinguished history, too, as well as an interest in the kinds of leaders we educate. Since 2008, that history has formally included sustainability — both as a goal and a life practice. At the College, this has been a community-wide commitment and effort, and it seems that great strides have been made in a short time. But history doesn’t happen overnight, and we would be remiss not to acknowledge the quiet contributions made to build a sustainable college that were ongoing well before 2008, notably in administration and facilities and through the efforts of many students, faculty and student groups. This is where much of what we built on began. This is where the vision for a sustainable College arose. The 2008 Sierra Club list of “Five That Fail” does harm to these beginnings, debasing these contributions to what has become our success. This, too, is a reason to pursue a full and fair disclosure with the Sierra Club.

_Lynda Buter and Dennis Taylor are co-chairs of the College’s Committee on Sustainability._

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