Swat Receives B+ in Sustainability

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore earned a B+ on the 2010 College Sustainability Report Card released in October. The grade is a change from the B- the college has received for the past three years, and was reached through a survey of nine categories such as “green building,” “student involvement,” and “endowment transparency.”

Of the nine categories surveyed, Swat received its lowest grades, Cs, in “administration” and “endowment transparency.” Scores of A were attained in “climate change and energy,” “food and recycling,” “investment priorities,” and “shareholder engagement.” The three remaining categories, “green building,” “student involvement,” and “transportation” garnered Bs.

Although Swat received an overall score that was higher than ever before, several individual categories decreased, such as “endowment transparency,” which fell from A to C. According to Carmen Duffy, an Investment Associate on the Committee on Investor Responsibility, the transparency rating dropped due to a change in the methodology employed by the Report Card. “We are not doing anything different than last year,” Duffy said.

Carr Everbach, Co-Chair of the Sustainability Committee and engineering professor at Swarthmore, also expressed confusion with the decrease in endowment transparency, saying, “I don’t quite understand the basis for the grade.” He did, however, explain the change in grading practices, saying that in the past the Report Card based scores on “what they could glean from our regular website.” Now, the Sustainability Report Card sends a survey to each college and judges their sustainability based upon the responses. Because of the survey, we were able to “give them a better picture of where we are,” Everbach said.

According to the Sustainability Report Card website, Swathmore’s A in “endowment transparency” in 2009 was given because the Committee on Investor Responsibility makes its decisions public and because “the college generally provides information on endowment holdings upon request from the college community.” This year, though, when the survey asked “what information about proxy voting records is made available” the response indicated that no information is made available to the public and that only “votes cast on proxy resolutions on a company-specific level [not including the number of shares]” are made available to the Swat community.

Most of Swat’s rankings in individual categories, however, have risen this year. For example, “climate change and energy” rose from a C in the 2009 report card to an A this year, and “green building” received a B in 2010 as opposed to last year’s C. Most of these changes resulted from the new methodology, but the Sustainability Committee and Earthlust have also been working over the past two years to create awareness on campus and to organize activities such the creation of a community garden. Still, some categories, such as “administration,” in which the College received a C, have remained constant since the report’s inception in 2007.

Everbach and Director of Maintenance Ralph Thayer, both Sustainability Committee co-chairs, made it clear that the Report Card has not influenced any policy decisions or new initiatives. “We are not intending to do anything just to play to the report card,” Everbach said. Thayer added that in the future, the Sustainability Committee might use the Report Card as a “topic of conversation.” “Swarthmore College, like any other institution, is mindful of its image,” Thayer said.

Earthlust member Zein Nakhoda ‘12, who filled out the portion of the survey on “student involvement,” said that the Report Card has not been used as a guide for Earthlust’s actions. Still, because the survey provides basic inquiries about sustainability, the survey and Earthlust’s initiatives “are actually correlating a lot,” Nakhoda said.

This correlation is also seen in the Sustainability Committee’s recent discussions with President Rebecca Chopp about new environmental initiatives. According to Thayer, Chopp “regards the pursuit of sustainable and conservation measures as fundamental to her presidency.” Thayer said that the Committee is welcoming communication with Chopp. This interaction could eventually lead to an increase in the “administration” category, which judges policies made to promote sustainability at the administrative level.

Although the survey used by the Sustainability Report Card allows them to get a more accurate picture of Swarthmore, the questions asked sometimes limited responses to a “yes” or “no” answer, where sometimes neither was correct. In regard to a question about organic pesticide use, for example, Thayer said, “The question is not germane to what we do. There should be a box on the survey form for ‘question does not apply,’ but there’s not.” “It’s hard to go into detail with the questions,” Nakhoda agreed. Still, he said that the questions did offer a “broad range of avenues.”

The 2010 Sustainability Report Card includes grades for 332 colleges and universities. The group of schools awarded an A- (this year’s highest score) includes Amherst, Williams, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Yale. Haverford, like Swarthmore, received a B+, whereas Bryn Mawr was given a B.

Nakhoda thinks it is important to note that Swarthmore was placed below some peer institutions, such as Amherst and Williams, by the Report Card. “We should be motivated to make Swarthmore a leader in sustainability,” Nakhoda said.

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