Penn State STARS Performance: On Greenwashing Part 3

Penn State’s conditional sale of land in Ferguson Township to the Toll Brothers has caused quite the dustup in the local community. And recently, people have called out Penn State’s Provost Nick Jones for greenwashing without using the term. Recently, Penn State’s Sustainability Institute posted Jones’s statement that sustainability will be an important part of Penn State’s next strategic plan. You can read the statement here. Unsurprisingly—and perhaps correctly—people in Ferguson think the university is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

How can you say you’re committed to sustainability and then sell land on Zone 2 of the recharge area to develop sprawling student housing that will be built by a known environmental offender? Or is this a future commitment, something to be hoped for? These are good questions? In this post, I’ll give you a glimpse of a sustainability assessment tool and Penn State’s last score on it.

I think the notion of slightly fuller disclosure than usual should rule here. The content of this post would be really unlikely if I didn’t work at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute (SI) or, at least, didn’t have a background in sustainability for higher education in particular and sustainability education in general. Most people wouldn’t just think, “Oh. Let’s go find the report for ____ University’s sustainability performance.” So in that sense I’m using a little bit of an insider perspective. So I work with the people who compile this information, spend time with them, work on parts (though not all) of the things that really matter for how engrained sustainability is and will be at Penn State, and so on. I in no way speak for any of them much less the SI or Penn State. I’m doing this is a private citizen who wants to shed light on a public issue and wants to understand the situation better. I even hope that doing this will give some of us better approaches to local government-university-developer relationships and such. Okay. Moving on.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE…ugh…acronyms in modern academic and governmental life) created the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System to create “a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.” Hundreds of colleges have used it. You can see on the Dashboard that only one college has a Platinum rating, 79 achieved Gold, 127 achieved Sliver, 47 Bronze, and the lowly 18 Reporters. If you want to get further into There are limits on access. Member institutions can see all the reports in detail so I won’t bother with that link. If you are a Penn State faculty or staff, you can create a log in to see more details. If you can access the site, you can access the Penn State report at this link.
Penn State is a STARS Gold institution. That’s an improvement from Silver in 2011. Out of a total possible score of 100, Penn State earned a 66.74. There are multiple subcategories AASHE scores and weighs to try to create a meaningful overall indicator of performance. These categories are Academics, Engagement, Operations, Planning and Administration, and Innovation. Since Mary Easterling is named as the contact person on the website, I want to just nod my head to her for compiling data and helping us to understand it.

In some areas Penn State performs very well, some okay, some poorly. On academics Penn State does very well on research—people doing research across Penn State on climate science, environmental philosophy and policy, education for ecological citizenship, and much more in world-renowned programs. Access to research, though, was rated 0 (access and transparency are important in STARS). Under Operations, Grounds is a very strong part of operations both for management and for biodiversity and so is Water, no doubt because of the excellent waste and storm water management. Diversity &Affordability and Health, Wellbeing & Work were fairly high as well.
Campus Engagement, Public Engagement, and Curriculum are all in the middle. The sheer size of Penn State makes achieving a high score on one of the measurements very difficult—a heavily-weighted number of sustainability courses. That will take a lot of time and concerted effort. There are a lot of people to work with at Penn State and the strengthening and activation of the social side will take and has taken a very concerted effort. Much of it has been a sort of grassroots movement in the past and is now part of programming that is building up steam. But there’s a lot of people Penn State I’d say who think sustainability is junk, lacks intellectual content, or do not see it as advancing their professional lives. For all they know or believe, sustainability is a fad or a left-wing thing. Perhaps my focusing on it here as a clearly politically progressive environmentalist sets off every identity alarm there is. There’s a lot to be done in the social garden on this one. Whether we think of that as seeding, cultivating, or weeding I don’t know. Nonetheless, Penn State is doing okay in these areas and I’d expect it will do better.

It’s largely in Operations and Planning and Administration that Penn State gets hit hard. I’m sure that the activists in the area and on campus are relishing these moments. “I told you so!” they are saying. They have. In Air & Climate, Buildings, Dining Services, Energy, Purchasing, Waste and Investment, the scores are pretty low.

I’ll just write about energy-related measures. We should note that the transition from coal to natural gas for its onsite power by 2016 was incomplete. Some will note—like Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and others—that it’s not clear that natural gas has a lower climate forcing impact than coal. Fugitive emissions of methane from wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure may eclipse the possible greenhouse gas savings from burning natural gas. It will be interesting to see how STARS accounts for that in its next iterations. The overall climate impact of Penn State from combined energy use is quite high and its renewable energy portfolio is slim. However, the university has procured an old zero-carbon hydroelectric station, the energy engineers are working on their own and with community members on solar including the creation of solar offset electric vehicle stations, and the commissioning engineers work constantly to upgrade buildings. Penn State is part of the Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge, has a green building policy and other plans to reduce Penn State’s greenhouse gas footprint 80% by 2050 in line with the IPCC.

My own feeling is that the progress may not be what I’d like it to be on climate and energy. The Sustainability Institute worked with a team from Harvard last year to engage a lot of stakeholder around energy. Between that and what the people in Office of Physical Plant are doing—and I’d say are committed to doing as well as they possibly can—progress will happen. A few of the projects supported by the Reinvention Fund involve renewable energy and could facilitate a transition toward more renewable and less fossil fuel energy, though the gains are very modest. Is the pursuit of a lower-impact energy infrastructure happening as fast as I want it to? No. As fast as some folks in the community and at the university think it must happen? Surely not. But it’s happening with focus and effort and I think a combination of patience and urgency is in order.

Finally we have the Investment category. This is the lowest scorer with a .25/7.0. And here, people I know who are incredibly suspicious of Penn State’s interest in power, money, and image are laughing. That’s not a deliberate knock but a hard truth. This looks bad. The STARS report says we have no Committee for Investor Responsibility, has very little investment in sustainability (only a small amount in sustainable industries like renewable energy or sustainable forestry), has no publicly available sustainable investment policy, and has no investment policy at all. VP of Business and Finance David Gray said at the #PSUstrong town hall meeting a couple of weeks ago that the Board of Trustees has charged investment to be done exclusively on financial performance alone. A critic—me included—will ask why sustainability was left out in the past and how this will change in the future?

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. The investment in Penn State (and probably by Penn State) in the fossil fuel economy is enormous. There are endowed professorships in mining and energy engineering and I hear from engineering professor friends that people from the fossil fuel segments of the university walk the halls offering people research money. These are stated in cartoonish terms, but brought to something more realistic, the relationship between the old energy economy and Penn State is cozy. In abstract economic terms, this university is the home of a lot of sunk costs. Transitioning to a cleaner energy economy will be painful.
Penn State is a lot like the United States. In some ways, there is much to seemingly despair about from an advocate’s standpoint on sustainability. There’s action to reduce environmental impacts but it’s slower than it should be. Investment, like much of Wall Street, remains opaque and too likely invested in dirty energy. But there are signs of new thinking and a culture that supports new thinking and new action. And I’d say all those signs are pointing in a direction that we would find hopeful. I’d even say that they have started pointing us to new directions. Finally, on some accounts Penn State is doing very well. Research , Grounds, and Water are all excellent and even shine. But the question remains, Was Nick Jones greenwashing?

I don’t know. If sustainability as a strong form of sustainability infuses most everything at Penn State, then no. If Penn State doesn’t more deeply invest in a culture committed to meaning and human well-being and solving the big problems of fresh water, climate change, soil health, biodiversity loss, and the decline of ecosystem services, then yes it will be a greenwash. But right now, we see some real progress and some ares of concern.

But is it greenwashing with the recent Toll Brothers development? Suffice to say that based on what we have so far, I would say…stick around. There’s more to think about.

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