Ask any student to locate the most tangible indicators of Eastern Mennonite’s commitment to sustainability and they might point towards the three LEED gold-certified residential halls, the massive solar array on the Hartzler Library, and the omnipresent green recycling bins. But now the university has both a new accolade and a comprehensive benchmark of the EMU community’s broader sustainability initiative beyond ecology and the environment.
EMU and its site in Lancaster, Pa., have earned a Silver rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The standardized rating system, created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), recognizes sustainability efforts by colleges and universities around the world in the areas of curriculum and research; operations; and planning, diversity and engagement. AASHE defines sustainability as “encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.”
Sustainability coordinator Jonathan Lantz-Trissel led the months-long project, which culminated in the award received in early 2014. The data collection involved 18 contributors from various departments and frequent consultations with a 300-page technical manual that provided guidelines and formulas to compute scores for everything from greenhouse gas emissions to building energy consumption. Credits are awarded based on a variety of performance- or strategy-based indicators, each of which requires specific and unique input from a “responsible party.”
That explains why, when he clicked the final “submit” button, Lantz-Trissel reported feeling like an Olympic athlete at the end of a long quest. He relished the sight of the silver medal that appeared shortly on the screen, and then another feeling took over.
“Actually, I’m really tired,” he said with a laugh during an interview a week later. “It is a little like winning a championship. This rating was something we had earned and worked hard on for a long time. It represents many of our sustainability efforts that have been going on for the past seven years and I’m so pleased that people within the EMU community are getting the recognition they deserve.”
While recognizing a history of grass-roots activism on campus, Lantz-Trissel traces EMU’s formal embrace of the sustainability effort to the 2007 adoption of education for sustainability as a re-accreditation requirement (EMU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges). The resulting five-year Quality Enhancement Plan infused the topic into the undergraduate curriculum and focused community discussion on its diverse goals.
So when Lantz-Trissel began gathering the necessary data for the STARS report, he wasn’t surprised that curriculum and research was one of EMU’s strengths. More than 170 of EMU’s courses concentrate on or incorporate aspects of sustainability, and 12 faculty members from diverse departments are currently engaged in related research. EMU also earned credits for its student-led organizations and outreach campaigns, new student orientation tour, the annual Recyclemania event, organic garden, and outdoors program.
The most labor-intensive section of the STARS assessment surveyed EMU operations, including buildings, dining services, energy consumption, grounds, purchasing, waste and water. Gathering information to complete the greenhouse gas inventory alone took Lantz-Trissel nearly a year, requiring calculation of “our whole carbon footprint, everything from people driving to and from the university to air travel for all the student cross-culturals to electric, water and paper use.”
In the final category of Planning, Administration and Engagement, EMU earned credits for its strategic planning; diversity, opportunity and equity programs for students and faculty; and responsible investing. This category also evaluated EMU’s sustainable workplace environment and its outreach into the local community and within other academic institutions.
The Silver rating, reported in the Version 1.2 system, is valid for three years. With its first-time honor, EMU joins 22 STARS-rated colleges, universities, and community colleges in Virginia, including Bridgewater College (Bronze) and James Madison University (Silver).
An updated reporting system with more definitive guidelines, Version 2.0, was released in the fall of 2013 (Goshen College was one of the first to earn a Silver rating using this reporting system).
The updates “require institutions to keep improving on their sustainability work,” Lantz-Trissel said. But because EMU opted for conservative reporting of its achievements this first time around, he anticipates plenty of opportunity for an improved rating in the future, even considering the more stringent guidelines.