Princeton Review not impressed with our early sustainability efforts

When the Princeton Review recently published its annual ranking of colleges and universities, it for the first time included a “Green Rating.” Earlier this spring the UT Arlington President’s Sustainability Committee had submitted detailed info on our sustainability initiatives as part of the university’s response to the Review’s broad annual survey. The results, announced in late July, were disappointing: UT Arlington’s score was 60 on a scale of 60-99.

UT Austin, Rice, and UNT also scored 60, while SMU scored 69, UT Dallas scored 70, and both TCU and Baylor scored 78.

It’s frustrating that our score was the same as it would have been if the campus had not put substantial effort into, and not made substantial investment in, environmental curricula, energy efficiency, recycling, composting, and the launch of the PSC. And it’s irksome that the university got the same score it would have gotten if we had not even responded to the survey items on sustainability. The reasons for this result are somewhat mysterious, since the Review does not disclose details of its methodology for the green rating. But I see several factors.

First, the 60-99 scale of the Review’s green rating system is methodologically ridiculous. Campuses that are doing little or nothing receive a 60. But since the scale is so compressed, apparently so do some campuses that are doing quite a bit.

Second, the survey arrived only a couple of months after the PSC was formed. Some of the most significant sustainability developments at UT Arlington occurred after the survey data were submitted in March: release of the Sustainability Agenda; completion of the carbon footprint project; launch of our participation in a ride-sharing program; launch of our participation in Air North Texas; recognition that the campus consumes some electricity generated with renewable energy; first calculation of the university’s solid waste diversion rate; new purchasing guidelines for paper and equipment; and announcement that the OneBook program will focus on environment in 2009-10. We can reasonably hope that these developments, combined with others we expect this fall – hiring a sustainability coordinator, breaking ground on the campus’ first LEED building, release of a white paper on sustainability curriculum and research, and other results of the committee’s ongoing efforts to implement the Sustainability Agenda – will put us in a better position when we respond to next year’s survey.

Third, and most important, however, our sustainability program still has a long way to go. It is clear we do not meet most of the benchmarks on which the Review’s rating appears to hinge (see methodology):

  • • Have not yet hired a sustainability coordinator. This is expected to happen this fall.
  • • No environmental studies undergrad degree.
  • • No “environmental literacy” requirement.
  • • No aggressive CO2 emissions reduction commitment (80 percent reduction by 2050). Hundreds of institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment; but because the UT System prohibits us from doing so, we will have to explore other means of signaling that the university is serious about climate protection.
  • • Little use of locally or organically grown food.
  • • No program to encourage students to use mass transit. Because Arlington has no mass transit system, our options here are pretty thin. We should explore ways to tap into the park-and-ride system now available on I-30 and I-20 on the city’s north and south sides. [See Letter to editor, 8/26/08]
  • • Our new program to encourage students, staff, and faculty to engage in ride sharing is fairly soft. It offers no specific financial incentives.
  • • Waste-diversion rate is not high. According to calculations by graduate students during the carbon footprint analysis, about 14 percent of our solid waste stream is recycled or composted. [edit: See correction in Comments below]
  • • No specific commitment to buying or making renewable energy. We purchase whatever the regional electricity grid provides, which at this point includes a small (but growing) percentage of renewable energy, principally from Texas’ increasingly prominent wind industry. We should explore the possibility of purchasing more.

We perhaps can get some fuzzy clues about how the Review weighs these factors by comparing our programs with TCU’s. One of the leaders of TCU’s sustainability initiative, Sociology Professor Keith Whitworth, told me he suspects his institution’s surprisingly high score of 78 can be attributed to five considerations. For two of these, there is no difference between TCU and UT Arlington:

  • • recent formation of Environmental Council (equivalent to our PSC); and
  • • all new buildings are up for LEED certification, and TCU plans to build only LEED structures in the future (same at UT Arlington).

In three others areas we clearly lag behind TCU:

  • • free bus passes; universal access transit passes; bike sharing program;
  • • waste diversion rate reported to be 70%; and
  • • signing of a formal commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Princeton Review press release on green ratings

Survey results showing UT Arlington score of 60 on scale of 60-99

Shorthorn story, 8/28/08

15 Responses to “Princeton Review not impressed with our early sustainability efforts”


  • I have a hard time believing TCU has a 70% waste diversion rate! That’s increadible high. And from the carbon footprint, UTA’s rate of 14%- was that derived from 2005 data? I’m willing to bet it is higher now. But 70%- I just don’t see how that’s possible.

  • Whatever, Princeton Review. I’ll write more when I can calm down. Serenity now!

  • Pam, I’m also a little suspicious of it the 70% figure. It was fairly difficult for us to to calculate our total wastestream, and I wonder if TCU’s figure is based on that kind of comprehensive baseline.

    You’re quite right that the 14% figure is for 2005. I should have noted that.

    I’ll try to calculate the diversion rate for subsequent years.

  • It turns out that the diversion rate figure I cited – 14 percent – was for 2004, not 2005, and the rate might have been somewhat higher since that time.

    Unfortunately, we have a total wastestream figure only for 2005: 2,844 tons. But we have recycling & composting totals for each of the past several years: 404 tons in 2004; 444 in 2005; 440 in 2006; 454 in 2007. If we assume the total wastestream did not change over this period (a bad assumption, admittedly), the diversion rate was: 14.2 percent in 2004; 15.6 percent in 2005; 15.5 percent in 2006; 15.9 percent in 2007.

    It is likely that both the total wastestream and recycling/composting tonnages do not include some materials that were recycled. Yesterday Don Lange pointed that when the university donates used furniture to charities, there has been no effort to track the tonnage. I’m also wondering whether we have captured data on demolition debris that is recycled, which, as far as I know, has not done under the auspices of the recycling program.

  • http://www.newsweek.com/id/116784

    The CO2 State: Texas produces more carbon emissions than most countries, but the state government and business community don’t seem too concerned.

  • As the Chair of the UTA SOA 2010 Committee I have been working with the School of Architecture to implement the 2010 Imperative. We have been working on changing the School of Architecture both in the classroom and the building itself. The School of Architecture requires all undergrad architecture majors to have a course in sustainability. I find that this should be a requirement for all non-science majors at UTA. Not only will we be teaching our future architects about sustainable design, we will also be teaching their future clients. I am looking forward to this coming semester to work hard on implementing this standard for future undergraduate students at UTA.

  • This is precisely the concern of universities that have implemented an “environmental literacy” requirement. I’m wondering, though, Boback: In your view it should be a requirement for non-science majors but not also science majors? Is the need for scientists to be environmentally literate any less serious than the need for others to be so?

  • Well to my knowledge most science majors are required to take a course in ecology or something along that field of study. I do not find one to be less serious than the other. If our science majors do not have any courses that go along with sustainable issues, then yes they should be required as well.

  • Hi Jeff -

    Do note that many of the schools that received grades of 60 from Princeton Review did not submit their surveys on time (or at all). Perhaps that explains your score. I was late submitting Rice’s survey, but the folks at Princeton Review have generously offered to grade our survey anyway, and we are awaiting the outcome of the official scoring. As you probably experienced, there were a number of related surveys this year, which didn’t help matters.

    Cheers,
    Richard Johnson
    Director of Sustainability, Rice University

  • Ours was submitted and submitted on time. If it’s true that some schools got scores of 60 without submitting surveys, that underscores my argument that the methodology is deeply flawed.

  • Hi

    I am a resident of forest glen. Whenever I go to dispose trash, I see the recycling and other bin filled with material is that is supposed to be in the other bin. This is a clear waste of resources and shows carelessness of people for the environment. How do we solve this issue ?

    My friend, who stays with me, and works night shifts in a campus computing lab tells me that he saw the garbage truck collect stuff from both bins into the same pan – leaving no separation. I have not seen this. However, if this is true, is the company separating the stuff later ? If not, what is the use of having two bins ?

  • With all due respect to the Princeton Review, what I think is more important to our University and the future of sustainability are tangible things we do well everyday such as recycling, composting, energy conservation, etc. Our efforts in these areas have been and continue to be recognized at the national, state and local levels. I am confident that with time and patience our friends at the Princeton Review will catch up with UT Arlington and recognize our many accomplishments. In the interim we should celebrate them and thank those who make it happen every day.

  • I’m responding to comments on an “environmental literacy” or similar requirement. Not all science majors take a course that focuses on ecology or environmental science. At this university, Biology majors have to take a sophomore level course on Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity, and many Biology majors also take one or more upper division courses that focus on ecology or environmental biology. Many students in the Geology program also take at least one course with environmental content, though I’m not sure whether this is required or just common practice. Outside of Biology and possibly Geology, I’m not aware of any required environmental courses for science majors. So I think it makes sense to contemplate a requirement for environmental literacy that applies to all degree programs. I also think it would be make sense to think about having flexibility to allow students in different degree programs to meet the requirement in ways that are convenient and relevant to their interests.

  • Environmental literacy is quite a broad topic. It would serve a great deal to have a concrete definition of this term for future discussion, especially if UTA is in fact moving toward such a goal. That being said, I believe it should be the included into every degree plan on campus. Yes in ways that are applicable to the majors and by all means interesting, there is no reason it shouldn’t be. Take for example the Architecture course on sustainability. While this class had little to no teachings on sustainable architecture practices, it functions extremely well in making students “environmentally literate”. Most people reading this probably have a good understanding of what is covered in the class, but for those of you who don’t: The class serves as a broad social based introduction to sustainable concepts. Ranging from energy use to social implication. The class is discussion/ reading based and a large number of students come out with a greater respect for their environment. The question is though not about established programs, but how to implement this idea into other areas of the university. The one book initiative is a great place to start. This will bring the environmental discussion to every incoming freshman. But let’s take it further. Why can we not have a class similar to Arch 3331 in every major? The class has little to no relevance in all actuality to Architecture. Small tweaks in the curriculum could be made to be applicable to all disciplines. The problem then is where in the degree plan to put the class, with all of the state mandated core hours and the advanced courses this becomes a bit of a challenge. However it is nothing that cannot be overcome.
    Another approach that I have heard little about is in regard to research. UTA has very strong engineering and science programs. Why can we not push for some/ all of these programs to invest in sustainable technology research? Things like renewable energy, more efficient mass transit options, efficient building technologies, sustainable business practices, ect, ect. These would all make excellent capstone projects for students in a range of subject areas. There are already academic grants, competitions, and awards available for these types of projects why are we not pushing for the departments to pursue these?

  • Thanks for describing the Architecture course, Nathan. You might be interested to know that Prof. Douglas Klahr (klahr@uta.edu) is also going to be developing a sustainability course in Architecture for 2009-10.

    Also, the Curriculum, Research, and Community Engagement Work Group of the PSC is in the final stages of drafting a white paper on environmental literacy courses, other approaches to sustainability curricula, and sustainability research. We expect to release it in the next couple of months. An announcement of course will be posted on the Forum.

    Given your long-standing interest in sustainability curricula, I suggest that you contact Jim Grover (grover@uta.edu), chair of the work group. Point him to your paper on the subject and ask to review and comment on the draft.

    Finally, might I suggest that you contact the OneBook committee to suggest a book for 2009-10 and/or to describe the kind of book you think should be selected.

Leave a Reply