College earns B+ grade on sustainability standards

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October 29, 2010

12:11 AM

Sustainability efforts at the College of William and Mary appear to have paid off, as the Sustainable Endowments Institute awarded the College a B+ grade on its 2011 Green Report Card.

This B+ is the highest grade received by the College since the Institute was founded in 2005. In 2009, the College received a C grade, while in 2008, it received a D- grade.

Prior to this year’s rankings, the Institute had not awarded a grade higher than A- to any school. Seven schools received As this year.

“The green groundswell on campus is evident in a wide variety of energy-saving initiatives, such as sourcing food from campus farms and reducing hot water use through trayless dining,” Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, said in a press release.

Dennis Taylor, co-chair of the College’s Committee on Sustainability steering committee, attributed the high marks to the College’s increased focus on sustainable initiatives.

“We began this sustainability program at the College in 2008, and since that time, we’ve had a really positive trajectory,” he said. “If you look at the report, really in all areas except endowment transparency … we have no grade lower than a B now.”

The Cambridge, Mass.-based non-profit institution assessed American and Canadian universities in nine categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement. Of those categories, the College received four As and three Bs. Its lowest grade was a D for endowment transparency. It received no grade in the shareholder engagement category, since this category does not apply to the College.

Taylor said that the increase in grades in areas like dining service reflected a community commitment to sustainability.

“That’s indicative of a very widespread involvement of faculty, staff and students,” he said.

He added that the introduction of green fees also contributed to the grade, giving the College additional resources to pursue sustainable initiatives.

According to Taylor, the low score for endowment transparency is due to the manner in which the endowment is invested.

The Report Card listed the College’s endowment at $540,606,780 as of Dec. 31, 2009, most of which Taylor said was invested in mutual funds for which the College’s Board of Visitors does not appoint proxies.

“Mutual funds without proxies tend to be areas where we don’t have much control over how much transparency there is in the first place,” Taylor said.

While the College might not have complete control over the transparency of endowment investments, Taylor said that the Committee on Sustainability and College administrations are working to increase the grade.

Some of those changes could come from reviewing information from the College’s peer schools.

“[College President Taylor Reveley] asked, ‘What can be done about endowment transparency?’” Taylor said. “This is a very complicated issue, and until we look at all the data and have discussions with the president and Vice President [for Finance] Sam Jones ’75 M.B.A. ’80, I’m not sure I can say what we can do.”

However, Taylor suggested that any increase in the endowment transparency category could boost the College’s overall grade.

“If you look at endowment transparency, a slight improvement in that would push us into the A- category easily,” he said.

An A- grade would match that of Virginia Commonwealth University as the highest in the state. The College’s current grade ranks second in Virginia, tied with Virginia Tech, and ahead of the University of Virginia’s B, Old Dominion University’s C+ and Virginia Military Institute’s D+.

While Taylor said that the Institute’s assessment of the College was positive, the Committee on Sustainability has previously voiced skepticism about rankings by other organizations. In September, the committee questioned the methodology employed in the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” sustainability rankings after the College was named as one of the “Five that Fail.”

“Our particular concern with the Sierra Club began with its publication of ‘The Five That Fail’ in 2008,” the committee said in a Sept. 10 press release. “We quite naturally wrote to the editor of the Sierra Club magazine to ask what was used as a basis for their claim since [the College] had no institutional record of submitting a survey to the Sierra Club. After the 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.”

Taylor said that the Institute’s rankings could be considered more credible due to greater transparency in its grading methodologies.

“One of the things that the endowment institute has done is that they have made clear what their methodologies are,” he said. “It’s based on some very good techniques, and they have a lot of transparency. Our biggest problem with the Sierra Club is that they started out in a very crude way.”

Ultimately, Taylor said that the Green Report card could aid the College in future sustainable initiatives.

“With some of the other surveys, we’ve made it clear that we’ll revisit them,” he said. “The endowment institute gives you the tools to do that. It tells you what your options are.”

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