A Very Cool School

The Sierra Club ranks UConn among the top 50 'green' schools.

The Sierra Club, an international environmental advocacy organization, has ranked UConn among the top 50 ‘coolest schools’ in the country, based on environmental initiatives. The rankings also place UConn among the top 15 state flagship schools to make the list.

“We’ve got a lot of people working in various departments on improving the sustainability of operations at UConn,” says Rich Miller, director of environmental policy. “By integrating these activities with our educational and research programs, we’re striving to make our campus a living laboratory for many new technologies and practices that solve environmental problems.”

Sierra’s 2010 rankings were based on a survey, sent to more than 900 schools, which detailed each college’s environmental initiatives in 10 categories. This year’s methodology included a shift in priorities to give more weight to each school’s energy supply; other categories included efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments, and other initiatives that didn’t fit into these categories. UConn was one of the top 15 state flagship universities, and ranked 49th overall.

Miller says that UConn has made significant strides in recent years to move the University toward sustainability. In 2008, President Hogan signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which included a pledge for UConn to be completely carbon-neutral by 2050. A subsequent Climate Action Plan, developed in 2009, has guided the implementation of energy efficiency measures, including improving the University-wide steam systems and fitting older buildings with improvements to their heating, air conditioning, electrical, and lighting systems. All of these measures, says Miller, are saving the University energy and money while reducing the campus’s carbon footprint.

UConn is also one of the first colleges in the nation to require all new buildings to achieve at least LEED silver certification, a measurement of a building’s efficiency and sustainability. And UConn’s Dining Services scored highly on Sierra’s scorecard for its use of local and organic foods.

Miller attributes much of UConn’s success in “greening” the university to students – the EcoHusky group has a listserv of more than 400 students, and a core group is always planning new campus sustainability projects. In 2009, the University opened EcoHouse, a living and learning community in a designated residence hall that has attracted more than 100 students dedicated to a sustainable lifestyle.

The Sierra Club notes that when it began ranking colleges four years ago, many of the top green schools were small, private colleges. But this has changed, and many large, public institutions are gaining steam with their environmental initiatives.

Miller confirms that a growing number of schools are taking up the environmental cause.

“It’s safe to say that 10 years ago, there were no campus sustainability directors and coordinators,” he says. “Now there are probably more than 600 such professionals, like me, working in higher education across the country.”

Miller also thinks that it’s no coincidence that the best colleges and universities tend to rank highly in sustainability surveys.

“At UConn, the environment is one of three focused areas of excellence in our Academic Plan,” he says. “Sustainability programs and initiatives are manifestations of fundamental values that these top schools hold, and it helps us to attract and retain the best students and faculty.”

Related stories:

Plan Targets Carbon-Neutral Storrs Campus by 2050

Living and Learning in EcoHouse

Hogan to Sign Environmental Pledge March 25