Regulars and Shorts

Greening Higher Education

By Amy Brunvand

Tracking campus sustainability.

If learners are to gain sustainability skills through tackling real-world problems, a good place to start would be in the places they are studying. At the moment, the physical buildings and campuses of schools and universities manifest unsustainability, whatever their courses say about sustainability. The hidden and overt curricula are at odds.

– “Institutional Transformation”

in Handbook of Sustainability (2009)


Lately I’ve been working at the University of Utah Sustainability Office helping to compile a massive report about campus sustainability called STARS (it stands for Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System). In academia, acronyms are everything). STARS was launched in 2010 by the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in order to have one single comprehensive sustainability evaluation for higher education instead of lots of little surveys that started proliferating as interest in grew in creating a more sustainable society. Participating colleges and universities fill out a detailed questionnaire and earn points for specific practices related to academics, community engagement, campus facilities management, and leadership. Points add up to earn an overall sustainability ranking—bronze, silver, gold or platinum.

STARS scores are used by Sierra magazine to identify an annual list of “Cool Schools” and by the Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges. The reports are also freely available on the STARS website, so you can look and see how your university or alma mater ranks. So far, more than 350 colleges and universities have submitted STARS reports. Only one has managed to earn a Platinum STARS ranking—Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The University of Utah last submitted a STARS report in 2011 and earned a Bronze rating. Since then, the U has been busy developing sustainability curriculum and working on climate change and active transportation planning. Myron Willson, University of Utah Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer (and one of the Enlightened 50 named each year by the Community Foundation of Utah) hopes to boost the score to silver on the next report.

As sustainable practices become more integrated in higher education, changes are evident on the ground. If you visited the University of Utah campus this past fall you might have noticed a flourishing vegetable garden behind the Pioneer Memorial Theatre, buzzing beehives in the J. Willard Marriott Library roof garden, colorful graphics on recycle bins encouraging you to sort your trash, a solar-panel parking canopy near the new Law School building, a weekly farmers’ market selling fresh veggies, wooden boxes fastened to trees to attract nesting kestrels, or a set of handy bike repair tools chained to an outdoor workbench.

What’s most exciting about these projects is, they were dreamed up and/or implemented by students using the campus as a living laboratory. By trying out ideas at the relatively small campus scale, students get real-life experience to take with them after they graduate.

At the University of Utah, student sustainability projects are largely supported by two specific programs: a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund which collects a $2.50 student fee per semester in order to offer student grants, and the Global Changes & Society course (SUST 6000) that is core to earning an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability.

Students enrolled in SUST 6000 form a team to develop and carry out a group project. Since 2012 they have addressed stewardship of Red Butte Creek, strategies to encourage non-automobile commuting, and changing the campus culture to address climate change.

The lesson is clear: a little seed money and some interdisciplinary brainstorming can go a long way.

Of course, the University of Utah is not the only member of the Utah System of Higher Education using STARS to evaluate campus sustainability. Westminster College filed a STARS report last April earning a silver medal; Utah State University also earned silver with a particularly strong showing for water management on campus.

It may seem funny to think that simply filling out a survey could change the world, but by documenting steps toward sustainability, colleges and universities can see what they are doing well and mind the gaps. Ultimately, STARS encourages campus sustainability programs at many levels so that students can learn to become agents of change.



Handbook of Sustainability Literacy:

Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, STARS Reports:


This article was originally published on December 31, 2016.