Columbia’s most comprehensive sustainability inventory, a six-month effort involving all five campuses, has merited a gold rating from STARS, a well-known and respected Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System specifically for institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada.
Of the 236 colleges and universities that have earned a STARS rating, only 43 – or 18.2 percent – have achieved gold. Columbia submitted its 376-page report last November and received the gold rating in December.
STARS uses a self-reporting model comprising four major areas: Education and Research; Operations; Planning, Administration and Engagement; and Innovation.
In turn, these areas are subdivided into a total of 139 sub-sections – ranging from socially responsible investing to car-pooling.
At Columbia, data necessary to complete the self-assessment report required massive collaboration among administrators on the Morningside, Medical Center, Manhattanville, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis campuses. More than 80 people on the five campuses gathered information that was ultimately funneled to Cathy Resler Manager in the Office of Environmental Stewardship.
Resler, director of the project, says that there were few areas of the report where the answers were easily available from one source. For the commuter information under the Transportation section, for example, 8 people helped put together the necessary data. The process of drilling down for answers extended all the way to University suppliers and vendors. When each of the team members on the five campuses funneled their information to Resler, it was then up to her to tabulate and analyze the material.
“One of the greatest parts of this project was learning about the number of people, departments and programs across the University who are making sustainability happen,” says Rachel Futrell, Associate Director, Energy Management and Sustainability, Columbia University Medical Center. “We don’t get a lot of opportunity. This is a great starting point for future collaboration.”
Dan Held, Executive Director, Communications, Columbia University Facilities, also
says that the STARS project has helped bring people together. “We have ‘pockets’ of people doing things, but at a large institution like Columbia, we don’t have the opportunity to bring them together. When we share information internally, we validate each other for a more sustainable campus.”
The STARS rating system is point-based. Responses to each subdivision of the major areas -- Education and Research; Operations; Planning, Administration and Engagement –- generate a number of points, to a maximum of 100. Innovation responses have a maximum of four points. The totals from the first three areas are averaged, providing the institution’s final score.
Columbia’s final score of 74.18 produced its gold status. Score requirements for STARS rankings are bronze, 25; silver, 45; gold, 65; platinum, 85. To date, no college or university has received a platinum rating.
Of Columbia’s individual area scores, Planning, Administration and Engagement was highest, with 80.78 points with the Education and Research area a close second. “This is undoubtedly because it included the University’s community engagement, diversity and cultural affairs efforts that have been especially strong,” says Resler.
Columbia decided to participate in the STARS program because a proliferation of sustainability programs in recent years did not allow much control of how an institution’s data was collected or assessed, says Resler. With STARS, however, participation is exclusively by institutions of higher learning, so everyone is reporting and being judged from a similar base, she says.
Scott Wright, Vice-President, Campus Services, says that to continue to renew sustainability efforts, “we have to look at every nook and cranny, and that’s what STARS did for us. It’s an effort that’s not only competitive, but gives us some ideas where we should be.” However, he says, we’re all about doing things but every once in a while, we have to talk about it, celebrate it.”
Wright says that the Office of Environmental Stewardship will report all the information contained in the STARS report, not with a view to creating action plans, but rather to give departments a basis from which they will make their own sustainability decisions.
“We’re with everyone else,” he says, “to validate activity of the past, encourage what’s happening at present and inform the kinds of things we should be doing in future.”
STARS defines itself as “a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.” It was developed by the Association of Sustainability in Higher Education, whose purpose is to assist institutions of higher learning in the United States and Canada to develop and expand campus sustainability.