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Columbia Spectator Staff

Columbia is above average in sustainability efforts, but still at the bottom of green living in the Ivy League, according to the 2011 College Sustainability Report Card.

At least that's what the Sustainable Endowments Institute reported on Wednesday, detailing the sustainability in nine categories of 322 colleges with the largest endowments in the United States and Canada.

Columbia received an overall grade of B-plus, an improvement from the B it received on the 2010 Report Card. It received an A-minus in 2009 and a B-plus in 2008.

Despite the better overall grade, Columbia ranked worst within the Ivy League. Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania all received A-minus grades, while Yale and Brown received A grades. Before this year, A-minus was the highest mark ever given. This year, seven schools received A grades.

But despite its poor showing in the Ivy League, Columbia performed better than its neighbors. Barnard received a C-plus, up from a D-plus last year, and New York University received a B.

Unlike in years past, the Columbia administration chose not to participate in the evaluation. Every year, each college is asked to submit three surveys detailing their sustainable practices in the areas of campus, dining, and endowment, but this year, the University opted out.

The Sustainable Endowments Institute also requests a fourth survey completed by students. This year, Zak Accuardi, SEAS '11 and a member of Green Umbrella, a network of Columbia student groups dedicated to sustainability, submitted the survey.

Barnard's administration also chose not to participate, although students there submitted a survey as well.

Nilda Mesa, assistant vice president of environmental stewardship, said the University did not participate because the Institute never responded to an open letter in July calling for full transparency and accountability in the evaluation process. The letter was signed by over 40 universities, including Columbia and Barnard, and was sent to several sustainability-evaluating organizations.

Given the lack of response, Mesa said, "We'd rather focus on our ongoing efforts here at CU until someone takes up the schools on their offer to work together to improve the system."

Institute officials, though, claim that they did respond.

"It would be an incorrect assertion that we did not respond to the open letter. We did respond in several ways including with a statement as well as calling all of the signatories of the letter to try to arrange phone conversations—including a call with Nilda Mesa at Columbia," Director Mark Orlowski wrote in an email.

"Since 2008, the Report Card has become significantly more transparent by posting all survey responses online last year and this year, in addition to making the breakdown of the points allocated between our indicators in our grading system publicly available," Orlowski added. "Unfortunately, last year Columbia was part of just 5% of schools that chose not to make their full survey responses public and this year they chose to be part of just the 10% schools not to respond to any of our surveys."

"The first time we heard serious concerns raised by representatives of the Columbia administration was when Columbia's overall grade dropped from an ‘A-' to a ‘B' last year," he wrote.

According to Emily Flynn, a communications fellow at the Institute, it is very rare for a college to opt out of completing the surveys. When a college does opt out, the Institute gathers its own data on the school based on public information.

Overall, there were 52 A-range grades, 178 B-range, 70 C-range, 18 D-range, and one F given. Three of the schools were ungraded. There were a total of 62 B-plus grades given.

Despite its better overall score, Columbia only improved in one of the nine subcategories evaluated: Administration, Climate Change and Energy, Food and Recycling, Green Building, Student Involvement, Transportation, Endowment Transparency, Investment Priorities, and Shareholder Engagement. The average of the grades in all of these categories determines the overall score.

Columbia's Student Involvement score increased from a B in 2010 to an A in 2011. Flynn attributed this in part to students working with the administration on a green purchasing policy and hosting an EcoRep program to promote sustainability on campus.

The University's scores in the other categories stayed the same as last year. Columbia received A grades in Investment Priorities and Shareholder Engagement; B grades in Administration, Food and Recycling, Green Building, Transportation, and Endowment Transparency; and a C in Climate Change and Energy.

Despite its low score in Climate Change and Energy, Mesa said the University has made great strides in its climate change efforts.

"Since the adoption of our climate action plan in 2007, we have already made significant progress in achieving our goal of a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions by the year 2017 through a wide variety of well-publicized efforts, from major capital investments in energy systems, to green roofs and recycling, to going trayless and new conservation and alternative energy sources," she said.

Since each category accounts for 11 percent of the total grade, Flynn said that if there is a change in one category, it is natural to see a change in the overall grade.

Barnard improved in five categories, worsened in one, and stayed the same in three.

It received an A in Shareholder Engagement, up from an F in 2010. It received B grades in Climate Change and Energy and Student Involvement, and C grades in Administration, Food and Recycling, Green Building, Endowment Transparency, and Investment Priorities. Its lowest score was a D in Transportation, down from a C in 2010.

Although Barnard received a lower score than Columbia, Flynn said that smaller schools do not necessarily do worse than larger institutions in general. Flynn added that factors such as geographical location, endowment size, and the size of the student body are taken into account.

Even if smaller institutions do not have the same amount of resources as larger schools, she said, "We will give you points for everything you do have."