Earth to Oberlin
“Oberlin College’s environmental accomplishments are music to a tree hugger’s ears,” wrote Sierra Magazine, which recently bestowed upon Oberlin the title, “Coolest School in America” in its article on environmentally friendly institutions.
But the Sierra Club is not the only environmental organization to review Oberlin. The Sustainable Endowment Initiative has recently ranked us as well, and though we score better than most, they would certainly disagree with Sierra that we are number one.
Sierra is the national magazine of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental group. In their November/December 2007 cover story, “10 Coolest Schools,” they recognize our many accomplishments. “A third of the food served in its dining halls is produced locally, the school hosts the first car-sharing program in Ohio, student activity fees subsidize public transportation, and half of its electricity comes from green sources,” the article states.
They also acknowledge our Campus Resource Monitoring System, which lets students know in real time how much energy their laptop or hair dryer is burning up.
“My hope is that this recognition motivates us to make progress on all those areas in which we need to make progress,” said Environmental Studies Professor John Petersen. “I believe that Oberlin has an important niche in being smart and creative and genuinely innovative on environmental issues. With that said, we need to make the big picture work. The big picture is carbon emissions.”
Oberlin’s Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Nathan Engstrom agrees, calling the article both a “well deserved recognition” and a “call to action.”
Sierra noted that though over 400 college and university presidents have now signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to make their institutions carbon neutral, Oberlin was the first of its peer institutions to sign. They also heralded last spring’s “Green Commencement,” where biodegradable utensils and programs printed on 100 percent recycled paper were at hand.
Despite all these achievements, Oberlin did not come out on top on the College Sustainability Report card of the Sustainable Endowment Initiative, earning instead an overall B+, with at C in Transportation and a D in Endowment Transparency.
What kept us out of the three percent of colleges that did earn an A? Well, unlike Sierra Magazine, which focused mainly on the food we eat, the buildings we study in and the papers we recycle, the Sustainable Endowment Initiative is concerned with that 695 million dollar chunk of change known as our endowment. They are asking the tough questions like, “Do we take into account the environmental and social factors of our investments?” and, “Do we make our investment decisions known to shareholders and/or students?”
Though our grades have made a significant leap, the report card found that the College should be more open about where it puts its money. Currently, voting records and a list of endowment holdings is only available to trustees, senior administrators and “other select members of the school community.” Students, who pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year, do not make it to this list of “select members.”
However, those whining that a B+ is an embarrassment should know how far we’ve come in just one year. When the 2007 College Sustainability Report Cards were released last year, Oberlin earned an overall C+, with an F in Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement.
“Besides just looking at the letter grade we should focus on the fact that they named us one of only 25 Campus Sustainability Leaders out of the 200 schools they analyzed,” said Engstrom. “A B+ is a very good grade and we received As in six of the eight categories they looked at.”
Petersen took issue with this year’s report card, writing to Jordan Goldwarg, a research assistant for the SEI: “It makes absolutely no sense to me that Oberlin should receive a ‘C’ on transportation — an A+ would be more appropriate. I can’t imagine that you are finding greater innovation or action on other campuses. The fact that you gave Oberlin a C on this indicates to me that you did not do your homework.”
Petersen cited the “City Wheels” car sharing program, the student-subsidized LCT and the Oberlin Student Bicycle Cooperative as aspects that set Oberlin apart in the campus transportation category.
Goldwarg argued back, “Given that Oberlin is a small college in a small town, we would expect that it would be a pedestrian- and bike-friendly campus with few students commuting by car.” He also noted that the “City Wheels” program is only open to students aged 21 and over, excluding over half the student body from participating.
“A number of other colleges have negotiated car-sharing programs that are open to students aged 18 and over,” he said.
Even the “Coolest School in America” has its work cut out for it.