A 'B' for sustainability: Cornell's grade rises with improvements in investments and transparency

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Cornell's sustainability practices are better than they were last year, according to the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a nonprofit organization. But, says the institute, there is still room for improvement.

The university's overall grade rose to a B this year -- up from last year's B-minus, based on assessments in eight categories from transportation to endowment transparency.

The sustainability report card, which graded 200 universities nationwide, was released Oct. 24. More than two-thirds of the schools assessed saw their overall grades rise, with some of the biggest improvements reported in endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement.

For Cornell, the Lake Source Cooling project, Combined Heat and Power project and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified housing on West Campus were all major contributors to the higher grade. The projects were cited in the Climate Change and Energy and Green Building categories, where the university earned an A and B, respectively.

"From the improvement standpoint I'm very impressed; I saw a lot of the grades in different areas go up," said Carlos Rymer '08, president of the Cornell student organization Sustainability Hub. A new transportation category likely worked in Cornell's favor, he noted (the report cited free bus passes and the university fleet's use of biodiesel), as did greater administration participation in the survey process.

But if the grades are helpful as a rough guide, he added, the assessment process itself is also valuable. This semester, the Sustainability Hub and other student groups focused attention on Cornell's endowment, proposing a new committee of students and other stakeholders to give more input into Cornell's investment decisions. That new focus, he said, stemmed from the university's poor grades in shareholder engagement and investment priorities last year.

Grading schools for sustainability is a new phenomenon, said Cornell Sustainability Coordinator Dean Koyanagi, and while the Sustainable Endowment Institute is currently the only independent organization issuing comparative ratings, others are on the horizon.

"The institute's report card is an excellent tool for getting more schools talking about what sustainability means and what measures are important," said Koyanagi. Meanwhile, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is developing an assessment, in which Cornell will participate in 2008.

"Hopefully by participating as a pilot campus, we'll be able to help higher education develop these tools so they are more meaningful and an even greater driver for change," said Koyanagi.

Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, said the criteria were tougher this year than last, which likely accounts for Cornell's drop to a B from an A in the Food and Recycling category -- despite the university's increase in waste diverted from landfills to 57 percent from 50 percent, as well as other improvements in that category.

"Cornell should be extremely proud of having increased its [overall] grade in the face of criteria even more rigorous than last year," he said.

In other sustainability developments on campus this year, President David Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging that Cornell would work over the next two years to develop a plan for campus operations to reduce to zero the total net emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The university also established the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, a multidisciplinary research center focused on global sustainability issues, including poverty, global warming, energy and the environment.

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