Tech beats UVA, and other green campus news

Earlier this month, the College Sustainability Report Card came out, ranking American and Canadian institutions in terms of their green intentions and actions. I say "intentions" because many of the criteria for the rankings include language like "encourage" and "commit to" and "evaluate"—in other words, schools are being judged on how well they talk the talk. That said, real changes count too: composting in dining halls, nixing Styrofoam containers.

So how does our hometown U stack up? Um, er, not too bad: UVA earned a B minus. Now, there certainly are schools that really stunk up the rankings—Abilene Christian probably won’t be putting its D grade front and center on its website anytime soon. But compared with its most immediate peers, UVA is not exactly a shining star of greenness.

The B minus confirms, all too literally, Virginia’s oft-mentioned status as an "almost Ivy": The only school in that vaunted echelon that scored as low as UVA is Princeton. (Brown, Harvard, Penn and Yale all got A minuses.) When you look at schools’ endowment levels, results are more mixed. Dartmouth does a little bit better than UVA (B plus) with a very similar endowment; Vanderbilt does worse (C plus). Brown has a much smaller endowment but, again, scores much better.

Virginia doesn’t even rank that well in the ACC; only three other schools in the 12-school conference scored as badly or worse. Virginia Tech edged us out with a solid B, and UNC Chapel Hill is probably rather proud of its A minus.

But what does it all mean? Well, first of all, the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s list of indicators used in these rankings is a study in how tricky all the issues really are. Schools can score points for vehicle fleets that run on "clean-burning fuels or electricity"—but what if that electricity comes from coal-burning plants? Other examples abound. That’s why, again, intentions end up being so significant.

Secondly, as you can see from UVA’s more detailed scorecard, the ways that schools handle their money figure heavily into the results. And this is where Jefferson’s Virginia, like Jefferson himself, shows weakness. Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement each earned UVA an F, while Investment Priorities scored a lackluster C.

As imperfect as this entire ranking is (I’d caution, above all, against using it as proof that any school is "sustainable"—none of them are anywhere close to true sustainability, not by a long shot) one hopes it would provide students and institutions a kick in the butt to improve where necessary. UVA’s grade dropped from a B a year ago. Hoos should take that as a challenge and a wake-up call.

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