Sierra Club’s Greenest Colleges Ranker is Sorta Lacking

I was sort of intrigued when I stumbled across the Sierra Club’s 2010 “Cool Schools” ranker yesterday, which uses a detailed questionnaire filled out by undergrad colleges to determine how “green” they are – asking questions about energy use, efficiency, food, transport, waste, etc. – and then ranks them.

Cool idea!

But of course, I can’t look at anything without a critical eye anymore thanks to all you smartypantses out there, so here’s where I see this trendy green ranker coming up quite short.

While I applaud the decision to make “energy supply” the heaviest weighted category – which is really what prevented Emory University from ranking higher than #42 (50% coal/50% natural gas) – key questions about urban form are COMPLETELY omitted.

More specifically, while secondary considerations about recycling at sporting events and lists of sustainability classes get their share of white space, key questions about on-campus living and the average daily student commute are no where to be found.  Pardon my skepticism, but I’m not sure it matters how many LEED-certified buildings you have built or how much “cow power” you use to keep the lights on, if most of your student population lives miles down the road and drives to class everyday, you’ve got some work to do!

Would giving heavy weight to student/faculty commutes dramatically change these results?  Probably.   You’d most likely end up with a bunch of big city colleges that no one THINKS of as “green” at the top, mixed in with the bio-fuel burning, rural colleges like Green Mountain and Middlebury.

But that’s how it should be.  Because even though it doesn’t LOOK all that “green”, city living is a much more efficient way of life.  Rural schools have no choice but to take up all kinds of new technology in order to begin to offset the country lifestyle, which almost requires an automobile.  City schools, which already have students walking to class and living in apartment buildings, shouldn’t be denied points just because it’s always been that way.

Just to be clear, I support everyone of the initiatives referenced in the Sierra Club’s college survey.  But without addressing the non-flashy basics (on-campus housing isn’t nearly as sexy as Middlebury College’s biomass gasification plant seen in the pic above), we’re stuck thinking about sustainability initiatives inside a mindset of consumption instead of taking in the whole picture.

4 thoughts on “Sierra Club’s Greenest Colleges Ranker is Sorta Lacking”


  1. “Pardon my skepticism, but I’m not sure it matters how many LEED-certified buildings you have built or how much “cow power” you use to keep the lights on, if most of your student population lives miles down the road and drives to class everyday, you’ve got some work to do!”

    I totally agree. The best case scenario is for on-campus housing to work in conjunction with LEED-certified buildings to create a total ‘green’ plan for campuses.

    I think of LEED-certification in buildings similarly to the way I think of the promise of electric cars replacing gas-powered ones — both things are good advancements for the environment in themselves, but also represent jobs half done.

    If the amount of surface asphalt on roads and parking lots remains stable in an electric-car future, the environmental benefit of the cars is compromised. Similarly, the benefit of green buildings is compromised if they remain part of a sprawling built environment.

  2. Yeah, I think many people are simplistic about what it means to be green.
    I think it was Sandra Bullock who had an environmentally “green” energy efficient house built. But then the story said she commuted 90 miles a day from her house to where she worked. Gotta think that burns up a lot of energy, and I loves ya Sandra.

    Very interesting op-ed piece in today’s paper about how much energy air conditioning uses up and how it makes us all indoor hermits during the summer. I have to agree. We seem to think that spending any amount of time outside is harmful to our health. But it’s not, unless we’re very, very ill or frail.

  3. I detect something of a presumption that rural schools have significant commuter populations. The majority of rural colleges have extremely high student residency rates – Middlebury’s is 99%, Green Mountain’s looks to be about 92% and Warren Wilson’s is around 90%. And while it’s a factor that faculty often do have commutes in those rural areas, many schools also offer on-campus housing for faculty and staff. Transportation concerns were addressed in the survey questions and factored in the rankings.

    It’s true that high population density living is the most efficient way of life for the majority of the planet’s population, the educational offerings of rural sustainability minded colleges are invaluable to teaching some students about natural resources, waste and water management, transportation, food supply and innovative methods for sustainable living that is translatable to urban living.

    A good number of these smaller, rural schools have been addressing the non-flashy basics since before being “green” was cool. What I question are the motivations and true commitment to sustainability principles of some of the large, urban institutions who’ve jumped on the green bandwagon by changing their lightbulbs and throwing up LEED buildings without enculturing the faculty, staff or students of an institution.

    Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Warren Wilson College – #14 on the list, and a small rural college that uses cow power.

    1. Yeah, that wasn’t my intention, but I can certainly understand how you detected a bit of that. I was more trying to create a hypothetical example of how a school could score well but still have issues.

      The mention of the transportation survey questions is a good point, though I wish they’d gone beyond “does your campus have a shuttle?”, “do you promote cycling?”, “do you encourage alternative transit?”

      The “how many students, faculty and staff use cars to get to school?” question is a good one, but it doesn’t really account for how far people must drive to get to school.

      I suppose some of it is just the limitations of the survey.

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