For the fifth time in as many years, the University of Connecticut is among the top 10 schools in the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” ranking. UConn placed ninth on the list this year, and was one of only a few Carnegie Level One Research Institutions still in the top 10. A change in survey methodology knocked previously high-ranking schools lower down the list, and put smaller liberal arts colleges and schools with specialized environmental programs into the top spots.
The Sierra Club, which is the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States, bases the school rankings on sustainability data collected in a range of areas, including energy, investments, academics, waste reduction and diversion, transportation, and purchasing. The raw data for scoring comes from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) STARS self-reporting tool. The Club then takes the data and scores it across 64 questions.
More than 200 colleges and universities took part this year. Only UConn and one other school – The University of California, Irvine – have managed to stay in the top 10 for five years in a row.
“What we are most proud of is that we continue to be in the top 10 and are one of only two in the nation to do that for five years,” says Rich Miller, director of UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy. “It’s a tribute to the number of students, faculty, staff, and administrators at UConn who care about a wide range of environmental programs.”
The scoring methodology was updated to reflect trends in campus sustainability, instead of rewarding schools for conducting audits and surveys of their sustainability operations, as in years past. In the 10 years since the survey was launched, higher education has come a long way in terms of incorporating sustainability values, says Jason Mark, editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine.
“At this point, it’s no longer sufficient for schools to simply survey their operations and curricula,” he says. “We, along with our 2.4 million members, are expecting measurable progress.”
One area of progress for UConn this year was food and dining, which grew from 28 percent local and community-sourced food last year to 35 percent this year – an increase of seven percent. Since last year’s survey, three more dining halls have achieved Green Restaurant certification, Miller says. Five of the eight dining halls on campus now have that designation, some of which are equipped with specialized kitchen equipment that reduces food waste volume by 80 percent.
UConn also scored well on the water, waste, academics, innovation, planning, and purchasing sections of the survey, and has been cited for its exemplary Vendor Code of Conduct, which sets preferential sustainability standards for any company seeking to do business with the University. Initiatives contributing to the strong showing include UConn’s reclaimed water facility, which recycles wastewater for use at the central utility plant, its recently updated Climate Action Plan, mattress recycling, and agricultural waste composting programs. Next Gen Hall, the first of the new construction projects to come online, was dedicated last month and includes two rooftop solar arrays and a green roof, among other green building features. Eco Madness, a fall semester competition introduced 10 years ago to reduce water and energy usage in first-year residence halls, is one of several initiatives aimed at engaging the campus community in conservation efforts.
This year, the Sierra Club awarded substantial bonus points for schools that had divested from fossil fuels, which the UConn Foundation has not done, and noted that it would be difficult for any school to rank in the top 10 without a divestiture policy.
“We’re hanging in there,” Miller says of the rankings. “There’s something to be said for consistent excellence based on real performance data and results across the board. “