Is the University of Maine as focused on college sustainability as Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic, which has been carbon-neutral since 2007 and prides itself on being at the cutting edge of environmental studies and sustainable practices?
According to the 2011 College Sustainability Report Card released Wednesday by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Sustainable Endowments Institute, the answer is yes.
Both schools received an overall letter grade of B, a ranking which delighted University of Maine officials but left their COA counterparts feeling disappointed. The survey ranked the colleges and universities with the 300 largest endowments in the United States and Canada as well as 22 additional schools, including COA. Bowdoin College, which received an A-, was the only Maine school to be cited for having the best overall grades. Bates and Colby colleges received a B+ grade, St. Joseph’s College received a B- and Unity College was not included because it did not opt in to the report card.
“This is very frustrating for us,” COA spokeswoman Donna Gold said Wednesday. “The survey is extremely long and extremely time-consuming, and there are some aspects that are problematic for us.”
Last year, the school received an A- from the report card while the Orono flagship campus of the University of Maine System received a C.
Both Gold and Emily Flynn, a communications fellow at the institute, agreed that the dip in ranking for COA was caused by growth in the college’s endowment, which now stands at about $20 million. Because the endowment was smaller last year, it did not weigh so heavily in the school’s grade, Flynn said. The categories assessed in the report card include climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, investment priorities, shareholder engagement, student involvement and transportation, among others.
Although COA, which paid to opt in to the survey, received perfect scores for administration, climate change and energy, and food and recycling, it was given C’s for investment priorities and shareholder engagement.
“We’re not a wealthy school,” Gold said. “We need to focus our investments on what will give us a good return.”
The school was cited for its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent from 2006 levels by 2015, for purchasing all electricity from a low-impact hydropower plant, for its recycling efforts and for composting in its dining halls, among other points. However, the report card said that COA does not invest its endowment in on-campus sustainability projects, renewable energy funds or community development loan funds.
According to Flynn, the purpose of the 5-year-old report card project is to have colleges and universities learn from each other about sustainable practices. Nationally, higher education endowments are worth $325 billion, she said, and are uniquely positioned to influence sustainable architecture and green building design.
“That’s a lot of influence,” she said. “We’re looking at colleges and universities as innovators in our society. The goal at the end of the day is that this is going to be a movement toward making a less impacting, more environmentally conscious community.”
That is just what the University of Maine has made a concerted effort to do starting five years ago, said Elaine Clark, the executive director of facilities, real estate and planning. That was when the university created a sustainability officer position and an energy team. Three years ago, the school signed a bill for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We put our money where our mouth is, so to speak,” Clark said of the university, which has a $110 million endowment. “We’re very pleased with a B grade from this report card.”
UMaine received strong marks in the category of transportation, where the free BAT shuttle and the campus fleet’s 11 gasoline-electric hybrids were cited, in climate change and energy, and in investment priorities. The campus has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 16 percent since 2005, purchases 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Regarding its investments, some of its endowment is invested in on-campus sustainability projects, according to the report card.
The university also has been singled out for its environmental and sustainability efforts in other reports and publications, including the Princeton Review’s 2011 Green College Honor Roll, Clark said. That publication also included COA and Unity College on the list of 18 colleges that received a “Green Rating” of 99, the highest score.
“We have lots of good things going on at the university,” Clark said. “We’re getting a lot of national recognition for our activities. It’s very helpful in terms of recruitment — I think our university development and admissions offices are very proud of these things, and do feature them.”
As for COA, Gold said she thinks that the college is one-of-a-kind — and that sustainability can be hard to measure.
“As a college that has a unique structure that involves students in all aspects, our students are involved on a deeper level,” she said. “Do we have a Mock United Nations at the college? No, we don’t, because our students actually participate in real U.N. activities.”