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Do we lag or do we lead?

Everyone loves a list, especially the ranked kind.

As a culture, we rank things as varied as celebrities, basketball teams and cities. Most relevantly to the discussion at hand, we rank universities. Or at least U.S. News & World Report does, and a host of others. These titans of opinion don’t just rank the best, they rank the best by program, and the best by size, weight and hair color. It should be no surprise then that there are rankings and report cards that attempt to judge a school’s sustainability efforts and greenness.

So, where do we stand? To explore the current state of things I made the trek to Duke’s sustainability office over in Smith Warehouse to find out. Turns out ranking information is not available on Duke’s Sustainability Web site. Why is it not readily available, you might ask? That question probably gets at the flip side of lists. They are subjective. Sure, there is a certain amount of objective criteria that goes into any ranking, but there is also a certain amount of opinion, intentional or not, that goes into making the final judgment. It’s a point often made by sports fans and administrators alike.

Fairly enough, Tavey Capps, Duke’s environmental sustainability director, wrote to me an e-mail: “While we appreciate the recognition afforded to Duke’s sustainability efforts, we recognize that the level of rigor and methodologies employed by many of these ranking programs can make their value questionable.” She then listed several highly favorable—but not outstanding—recent ratings, including The Princeton Review’s Green Rating (96 out of 99 points), Kaplan College Guide (top 25), the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools list (No. 23) and the Greenopia rating (three leafs out of four).

Like me, you may never have heard of some of those lists or the schools that top them, but more likely, you have. According to The Princeton Review’s 2009 College Hopes and Worries survey, 66 percent of respondents would favor having information on a school’s environmental practices and academic offerings, while almost a quarter of students and parents would let that information “strongly” or “very much” influence their assessment of a school.

There is clearly an audience for the rankings.

But Capps wasn’t done; she also pointed to a new ranking system. The Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) was rolled out last month by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, an organization for environmental professionals. STARS, however, will not be collecting data from the 125 participating institutions until 2011. That won’t be in time to influence the next crop of our class- and campus-mates. So although the ranking may be more likely to include measurable metrics and more open about criteria and reporting, it’s not yet an indicator, internally or externally.

Despite what the rankings may indicate, over the past decade Duke has been laying the groundwork for change. It adopted a formal policy to build LEED-certified buildings in 2003, conducted two greenhouse gas inventories and approved the Climate Action Plan in 2009. An assessment of the actual state of things, however, makes clear there are still gaps in progress.

Take the following as an example: the University boasts more than 26 LEED certified or qualified buildings on campus, the largest number in the country behind the University of Florida (UF), Capps said. Although most certified buildings receive a silver rating, only one gets gold, and only one receives the highest rating of platinum. The Home Depot Smart Home (LEED platinum-certified) also counts as a sustainable living option for undergraduate students. However, the dorm and teaching space houses a small number of the total campus residents, and is only 6,000 sq. ft. of the University’s total square footage. Will Duke, which currently has a target standard of silver, follow the University of Florida and raise its standard to gold?

Another striking example of disparity is access to recycling services. In some of the newer buildings, recycling stations are integrated into the central gathering areas and throughout the building. In others, you might have to take your bottles and cans out to the loading dock. And in Medical Center buildings, well, recycling is just not an option.

Along those lines, perhaps you were thinking composting was a good idea. I’ll just point out that this isn’t Boulder, Colo., and there is no curbside composting pickup. But you can go over to the Nicholas School, I hear someone’s maintaining a pile over there.

By presenting these examples, I do not intend to undermine the progress that has been made, and for which Duke has been duly recognized. But, although environmental sustainability is not a new idea at Duke, the University’s commitment in the modern sense is relatively young, and it shows in the fact that we have numerous programs of note that each serve small segments of the population.

So although we should certainly highlight our achievements for prospective students and within our community, expecting excellent grades on sustainability report cards and ratings at this point would amount to grade inflation. To truly lead, Duke must recognize the opportunities for improvement and expansion of existing programs, and continue to face those opportunities with energy and determination. After all, it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do.

Liz Bloomhardt is a third-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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