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Sustainability Studies Teach IU Lessons in Management

An annual college sustainability survey released recently grades Indiana University higher than a year ago, but says the school still trails most of its Big Ten brethren.  While the jury is still out on how important sustainability surveys are, IU administrators are finding out it’s not easy being green.

Each year, the Sustainable Endowments Institute publishes its Green Report Card, which grades universities in a number of areas relating to a school’s sustainability practices.  Indiana University’s grade improved from a C+ in 2009 to a B- for 2010.  While an improvement, the score ranks IU ahead of only the University of Iowa among Big Ten schools, and ties Purdue, Northwestern and the University of Illinois.  Spokeswoman Susan Paykin says IU’s rating improved in large part because the school created an Office of Sustainability and hired Bill Brown to lead it, pushing the school’s grade for “administration” from a C to a B.

While lagging in the Big Ten, IU does compare favorably to other nine Indiana schools in the report.  Only Earlham College and The University of Notre Dame score better than the Bloomington campus, with the majority of schools falling in the C range or worse and scores ranging as low as Wabash College’s “D-” rating.  No Indiana school earns an overall A grade.

But do these surveys even matter?

“The fundamental question is ‘Is it worth it?’  Is it really that important to grade universities on how they’re doing in this particular topic?,” asked Paul Sullivan, an IU vice president and co-chair of the university’s sustainability task force.

“Sustainability is extremely broad, and so if you try to consider all the different aspects of it, it would be a pretty large undertaking,” he said.

Sullivan said surveys are typically filled out by someone in the President’s or Provost’s office at many schools, meaning they become tools for forwarding an agenda with important people, as much as anything else.

“To be honest, I worry about [surveys] a whole lot.  It’s nice to show that we’re making progress, at least according to that particular survey.  It really isn’t that important.  We’re really more focused on what we’re trying to do and since those surveys are done at a very, very high level, it’s just kind of a way that organizations have to get people’s attention.”

But Bonny Bentzin, Director of Sustainability Practice at Arizona State University – a school consistently ranked as one of the most green campuses in the nation — said the surveys are important…to a point.

“We participate in the evaluation programs because they are important and it’s important for the public to see all the the different many universities that are participating in sustainability and all the different efforts that are going on.  But I don’t really spend a lot of time designing my program to meet them,” Bentzin said.

But whether the surveys themselves matter to administrators is not as important as the lessons they can teach schools like IU which are trying to foster fledgling sustainability programs.  Susan Paykin of the Sustainable Endowments Institute said the IU Foundation, a separate financial entity from the school itself, could be more transparent with how it spends and invests its money.  Breaking down walls of red tape, Paykin said, tends to open doors for sustainable practices and helps make the work of a sustainability office more effective.

“You give the office a little more autonomy or they’re sort of under the purview of administration that’s a little higher up so they don’t have to go through all of those levels of bureaucracy,” Paykin said, “There’s definitely more of a chance of getting projects off the ground and really being effective.”

Paul Sullivan said changing the practices of the IU Foundation, which has a singular goal of making money for the University’s endowment, is difficult – and, in some cases, seemingly at odds with the school’s green ideas.

“The IU Foundation has a separate legal entity and we don’t have any influence on what they do,” Sullivan said.  ‘So there’s minimal initiatives we can undertake to change that.  They’ve got a lot of privacy regulations they have to follow for all their donors, so there are a lot of issues on that side that I’m not completely familiar with.  But they’re uncomfrotable with some of this.”

So while Sullivan and Arizona State’s Bonny Bentzin agree the surveys are somewhat subjective and in need of standardization, they also see ways in which they help push campuses toward best practices.  Bentzin said it’s important to take risks and try new ideas, all the while using national studies to keep an eye on the competition.

“We don’t want to focus on the competition, we want to focus what’s the purpose of the competition,” she said.  “And the purpose of the competition is: if everyone keeps pushing the envelope, it’ll get everyone there faster.”

Where “there” is remains an open question.  While survey compilers may see it as a destination, Sullivan, Bentzin and others appear to see such judgments of sustainability more as direction down a path rather than as an endpoint along it.

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