Reaching for the STARS

Ashley Thorne

Sustainability officers representing nearly 40 colleges and universities have signed an “Open Letter to Sustainability Evaluating Organizations.” Directed to seven organizations that use some version of a “green report card”—including the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the National Wildlife Federation, and Princeton Review—the letter’s basic message is “we’re fed up with your sustainability tests.”

After the letter went out last week, administrators at over a dozen more institutions asked to have their names added to the list of signers, which now includes NYU, Texas A&M, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, George Mason, and Carnegie Mellon. The frustration that provoked the letter remains an undertone in this upbeat memo, which lists eight principles desired of a sustainability-evaluating body:

  1. Be fully transparent. 
  2. Be accountable.
  3. Disclose professional credentials.
  4. Embrace diversity. [That’s diversity of institutions, not racial diversity]
  5. Balance process with best practices. 
  6. Use uniform metrics.
  7. Reject financial conflicts of interest.
  8. Offer an “opt out.” 

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is not a recipient of the open letter. Launched last fall, AASHE’s voluntary sustainability-measuring tool STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System), in fact, seems to be the standard by which many colleges and universities judge the other measuring systems wanting. Inside Higher Ed notes that STARS has risen as top competitor in the sustainability rankings industry. About 160 colleges and universities have signed up as charter STARS institutions; this means they have opted to use AASHE’s 289-page technical manual for self-assessment. Apparently this mammoth text is preferable to the systems of groups such as the Sustainable Endowments Institute, for which “The survey processes have been cumbersome, the rating schemes have been unclear, and the results have been inconsistent—and, for many institutions, disappointing.” (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

Inside Higher Ed has a telling quote from AASHE executive director Paul Rowland:

Rowland, who notes that neither he nor AASHE was involved in the letter, says that he reads some “survey fatigue” between its lines.

“The sustainability officers I’ve talked to in the past year have indicated that they’re spending as much time filling out surveys as doing the things that the surveys are supposed to judge,” he says.

It seems the sustainability industry is so caught up in point-counting that it’s actually wasting its own time. The movement has latched on to higher education’s mania for outcomes assessment – a mania which, NAS has found, tends to lead to lower academic standards and attempts to quantify some things that can’t naturally be quantified.

That sustainability employees, who generally pride themselves on their commitment to abstract concepts such as “social justice” and “building communities,” have become sidetracked with documenting every jot and tittle of their efforts, is worth noting. Somehow we aren’t surprised. Sustainability is a practical discipline to some managers. It means cutting the electricity and waste disposal bills. But to others, sustainability is a thinly disguised salvific doctrine dominated by the idea that adherents can count up their meritorious deeds on the path to ultimate vindication in the eyes of Gaia. That straining after every paper clip is not about the environment so much as it documenting the existential worthiness of the cult’s devotees. 

The not-so-hidden salvational anxieties have unintended side effects. In the classroom, too much outcome assessment cheapens learning and reduces it to a set of checkboxes. In the same way, sustainability done mainly for the sake of earning the college an A+ green rating reveals some ulterior motives. Among colleges and universities, altruistic environmental stewardship takes second place to reputation.

Now institutions have reached the ceiling in how much reputation-work they can actually afford. By asking for evaluators to change their ways, they evince a desire to get back to the real work. To the extent that this means fostering thrift and prudent care for the environment, this is wholesome work. To the extent that it means indoctrinating students in a totalitarian ideology, it would be better if it was calculated into oblivion.

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March 23, 2011


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