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Tufts receives a ‘B’ in sustainability rating

Tufts criticizes methodology of SEI sustainability rating

Published: Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 06:11


Jenna Liang / Tufts Daily

There are compost bins installed in Dewick-MacPhie Dining Hall. The university received middling grades for its sustainability efforts, but Tufts has criticized the survey’s methodology.

Tufts received a ‘B' grade for sustainability and saw a decrease in its grades in several categories of the Sustainable Endowments Institute's (SEI) assessment of colleges and universities. The university had declined to participate in the independent surveys that the SEI had requested for its ranking process.

The SEI is a non−profit organization that annually issues the College Sustainability Report Card, ranking the nation's colleges and universities. While the university's overall grade for 2011 remained unchanged from 2010, its performance in the subcategories of Administration, Food & Recycling and Shareholder Engagement all dropped a letter grade.

Prior to the publication of this year's report card, the university opted out of the internal survey process that the SEI uses to rank participating institutions, forcing the SEI to issue Tufts' report card based largely on publicly available information and past analyses, according to Tina Woolston, the Tufts Office of Sustainability's program director.

The choice to not directly participate in the survey is part of an increasing trend at the university to prefer qualitative over quantitative rankings, according to Woolston.

Woolston, who took over the directorship after Sarah Hammond Creighton left the post in July of this year, said the schools that did best by the SEI's standards were the schools that put the most time into completing their independent surveys.

But the survey's methodology can be flawed and vague, according to Woolston.

Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell said a number of universities began collaborating about a year ago to discuss ranking organizations.

"I think we're participating in a survey that we think is just more accurate and goes deeper into the issue," Campbell said. "So we're not avoiding a survey per se, we're just trying to focus on one that we think is more effective."

"The types of questions they ask, they're not questions that can really evaluate whether or not a school is sustainable," Woolston said, adding that the surveys were typically time−consuming to complete and often showed a lack of expertise in the topic of sustainability itself.

Tufts on July 19 signed on to an open letter directed at ranking organizations like the SEI, calling for, among eight specific principles, transparency and accountability in ranking methodologies, Woolston said.

Meanwhile, Tufts joined instead with a different organization, the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS), a rating organization that is more in line with the principles Tufts seeks, according to Woolston.

"It's been put together and developed over the past four years by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), basically all the sustainability professionals from all of the colleges and universities," Woolston said.

While using STARS may be more expensive and time−consuming, it will ultimately save time because it is just one survey, Campbell said.

The description of the SEI's methodology has yet to be updated on its website for the latest round of evaluations, but according to Emily Flynn, an SEI research fellow, there have been two major changes since last year.

The 2011 report cards were completed online, ending the need for paper surveys, and the new evaluations focused more on quantitative questions, according to Flynn.

"Numbers really speak volumes in terms of how a school is doing in terms of sustainability," Flynn told the Daily.

Woolston disagreed. She said that the number of fluorescent light bulbs or bike racks available on campus does not necessarily indicate the school's level of sustainability and called the SEI's methodology "seriously flawed."

"I really feel like Tufts is taking a stand by not sort of being badgered by these ranking organizations," she said.

Woolston was happy to see that Tufts' overall grade did not change, noting that other schools' moves up or down the rankings may simply reflect the time they put into the surveys themselves and not their progress in terms of sustainability.

She portrayed the question of whether to participate in the survey as a choice between engaging in sustainability work or in survey work.

"We could be doing stuff on campus or we could be updating the website," Woolston said.

One area where Tufts has consistently performed poorly is in the category of endowment transparency, where for the past two years, the university has received a ‘D' from the SEI.

The openness of the investment process is limited by confidentiality agreements that are often required by investment managers, a process the Board of Trustees has determined to be best for the university, according to Campbell.

"[The Board of Trustees] has been open and eager to hear input, but they don't feel that it's something that should be an open process," Campbell said. "It should be managed by the investment committee, the board and the investment office."

Flynn said that Tufts' poor grade in this category could be improved simply by making asset information available online. She encouraged the university to bring more people to the table in the investment process, but when asked, was unaware of the limits put in place by confidentiality agreements.

Still, Campbell prefers the current arrangement and thinks the Board of Trustees is responsible in selecting industries and companies for the university to invest in.

The Office of Sustainability, which has been in a period of transition since Creighton's departure this summer, is currently working with the Department of Facilities Services to create new construction standards, according to Woolston.

"The facilities and construction department are actually working on construction standards and it's imperative to have construction standards in order to institutionalize sustainability efforts," she said.

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