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University gets B+ on sustainability

Duke students may prefer As, but when it comes to the environment, their university is stuck in the B range.

For the third time in as many years, Duke earned a B+ on the Sustainable Endowment Institute’s 2010 College Sustainability Report Card, released earlier this month.

The University received As in seven of the report card’s nine categories, including green building, transportation, and climate change and energy. According to its report card, Duke did well in these categories in part because of its environmentally friendly buildings, carpooling and bike-sharing programs and commitment to carbon neutrality.

“Obviously, we don’t like to get anything but As,” said Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “But when it comes to the tangible things, it’s clear we do A work.”

For earning As in all six “campus categories,” SEI named Duke one of 80 Campus Sustainability Leaders.

SEI has released College Sustainability Report Cards since 2007 and now evaluates more than 300 universities for their efforts to become environmentally friendly. Institutions are graded in categories ranging from food and recycling to investment priorities on the basis of publicly available information and surveys SEI sends to each school.

Duke received an A in investment priorities but fared worse in the other two categories related to financial practices. The University received an F in endowment transparency and a B in shareholder engagement.

These lower grades are in part the result of long-standing University policies to keep endowment holdings secret to maximize investment returns, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

He noted that a majority of schools that participated in the survey also received failing grades in the endowment category and said Duke would not release more information about its endowment holdings.

“I don’t see Duke or any of the other 60 percent of the schools that got an F making any changes,” he said.

Still, an SEI representative said the financial criteria are important measures of an institution’s efforts to become sustainable.

“Endowment decisions are expressions of commitment,” said SEI Communications Fellow Lea Lupkin. “If the endowment information isn’t transparent, there’s no way for us to evaluate [a university’s investments].”

Duke was beat out by 26 institutions that each received an A- overall, including Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and Brown University. No school received an A.

“It’s a nice validation that the university is taking the right steps to limit its carbon dioxide emissions and become a sustainable campus,” said Richard Lewis, a physical sciences media specialist in Brown University’s Media Relations department.

Even among schools that did well, though, there was some criticism of SEI’s methodology.

Fahmida Ahmed, manager of sustainable programs at Stanford University, said SEI should be more inclusive of universities and other environmental organizations in creating its assessment criteria.

“We have a very favorable impression of what the process brings,” she said. “But moving forward, the institute needs to work more closely with consortiums that are also evaluating benchmarks and have more transparent methodology.”

Schoenfeld said the University should be proud of its grade but wary of attaching too much importance to it.

“This confirms that Duke has been a leader in sustainability and environmental awareness on campus,” he said. “As far as the grade, it is what it is.”

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