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Greening Higher Ed, from the Top Down and the Bottom Up

The country's institutions of higher education are often thought to be hotbeds of environmental conscientiousness, the breeding grounds for environmental activism or simply green living for years to come.

And yet, according to a recent survey by IBM, college-aged individuals, whether you call them Generation Y or Echo Boomers or some other title, are both the most concerned about environmental issues, and the least environmentally responsible.

In the past week, two sets of rankings have been published -- the Green Report Card and America's Greenest Campus -- both trying to gauge just which schools are the greenest. Perhaps the most striking element of the results are just how different they are.

Let's take a look at the rankings: Green Report Card (GRC) puts 26 schools as overall leaders in sustainability; America's Greenest Campus (AGC) has listed 20 top schools for environmental action. The overlap, however, is minimal: Only the following four schools made both lists:

• Harvard University
• Oberlin College
• Stanford University
• University of California at San Diego

Here, for good measure, is the full list of top-ranking schools for each; GRC lists the schools alphabetically, AGC has them ranked based on the number of students involved in its competition.

 Why such a wide disparity? In part it's due to the nature of the rankings themselves.

The GRC rankings, now in their fourth year, are at a prima-facie level the stronger of the two, measuring a school's top-down approach to environmental sustainability. Each year the GRC staff survey hundreds of higher-ed institutions and compile the data from 48 indicators to develop grades along nine categories including administration involvement, green buildings, food and recycling, endowment transparency and student body engagement. The final result is an overall score developed from the GRC's detailed scorecard.

The AGC, which has just announced its first set of rankings, gauges sustainability from the bottom up: the grassroots competition asks students, faculty and staff at schools to commit to measuring and reducing their energy use. The top two schools -- the University of Maryland at College Park and Rio Salado -- were chosen for the overall number of students participating (2,257 at Maryland), and the largest average CO2-reduction commitment (Rio Salado's students committed to a 4.4 percent reduction in personal emissions).

"America's Greenest Colleges is showing that somewhere along the line there is perhaps a disconnect between what the administration is doing and how the students are living their lives," said Brian Keane, the president of Smart Power, one of the groups coordinating the AGC competition. "[Through this contest, we] can get students to change their energy habits, and really build on the great work that is happening from the top down."

It is in the middle ground between the methods of these two projects that school and business leaders can showcase the different ways their organizations are talking the talk as well as walking the walk.

Because as important as schools' investments are -- whether in green building technologies, organic / local / "sustainable" foods in their cafeterias, or even research into environmental issues or technologies -- it is also fundamentally important to recognize their importance as finishing schools for environmentally aware individuals.

And students are keenly interested in these issues. Keane said that the top three questions asked by prospective freshment are what the school's food and dorms are like, and the details of a school's sustainability program.

To take part in the AGC competition, students, faculty and staff sign up at (the web portal built for the challenge by Efficiency 2.0) with a .edu email address, and they're automatically added to their school's team. The site uses a questionnaire to measure an individual's carbon footprint and suggests ways to save money and greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
All results from the same schools are grouped together, and after six months the results were tallied. What AGC found was that, in addition to a broad disconnect from the GRC rankings, the community aspect of the challenge made a big difference.

Keane said that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- which ended up in third place overall -- came out of nowhere in the final week of the competition after the administration and student leaders put out a call for participation in the challenge.

And therein lies a suggestion as to how to bridge the gap between top-down and bottom-up sustainability management: Taking the best of both options can lead to the best results.

Obviously, it's important for schools to invest their considerable resources in green projects; but it's just as important to make sure those ideals are transmitted to and embraced by people at every level of the organization.

The first round of the America's Greenest Campuses competition has wrapped up, but Keane said that there are many more competitions coming up, in part because of the high levels of response to the first challenge, but also because it's primarily in keeping students engaged that they'll start to make long-lasting changes in their energy use, and make long-lasting environmental impacts at the same time.

"The most important thing is that the tens of thousands of students graduating each year go on to live greener lives," Keane said. "Of course, greening the institutions themselves is important too, but how they live their lives is equally important."

Campus photo CC-licensed by Flickr user John Loo.

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