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Drexel Aims for the Next Level of STARS With Sustainability Reporting

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February 04 2022

One of the main goals of the recently completed Climate Year, a yearlong effort between Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences to analyze and improve institutional efforts and programming related to climate and sustainability, was to have a better idea of just what those institutional efforts are.

Before Climate Year began in 2021, the University was already working on accumulating data to submit to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a national performance evaluation for institutions of higher education to report and measure their sustainability performance. Administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), STARS requires colleges and universities to report and reflect on its institutional characteristics, academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. Under those categories, subcategories are grouped and rated on a scale, and an institution’s cumulative score reflects its rating: bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

In its first time submitting a STARS report to be evaluated, Drexel received a Bronze rating last year. Professional staff members who helped submit the report see it as a quantifiable starting point to help the University on its path to improve and expand its efforts on its sustainability practices and opportunities.

The University received better scores for public engagement (particularly in “inter-campus collaboration” and “community partnerships” subcategories), air and climate (air quality), research (support for research) and diversity and affordability (for diversity and equity coordination and support for underrepresented groups). Areas to improve on included purchasing, grounds, and investment and finance.

Now, the University is on its way to submit its second STARS report in March, and hopefully move on to the next level: a Silver rating.

The first report used data accumulated from the 2017–2018, 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 academic years, just before the University created a Climate & Sustainability Working Group comprised of faculty, professional staff and students to seriously review the University’s policies and operations, and two years before Climate Year. Improvements and changes that Drexel had been incorporating or finalizing before submitting the initial report are now included in the second, and additional weak spots identified in the initial report were also identified and followed up with.

For example, the purchasing score inspired Drexel to work more with sustainable vendors, encourage sustainability practices in established third-party vendors, monitor its cleaning and office paper practices, and purchase from vendors certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). And the low grounds score led to highlighting the native plants on Perelman Plaza, and work on a grant to replace gas-powered vehicles used to drive around campus with electric ones.

Plus, this time around, the submitted data comes from a University and Academy that have since elevated and prioritized resources, opportunities and the need to better incorporate climate and sustainability into operational practices, research, academics, civic engagement and culture. In 2021, Climate Year worked on and met its goals to strengthen the institution’s climate commitment, engage the community in public-facing programming, promote sustainability and climate-focused experiential learning, research, civic engagement and collaboration, and — partly because of the initial STARS report — take inventory, coordinate and track institutional sustainability practices.

With a greater focus on sustainability and climate on campus comes a greater chance of improving the University’s capacity to raise its score.

University Sustainability Officer Bo Solomon was part of the Climate & Sustainability Working Group that submitted the original STARS report, and is now part of the new Office of Climate and Sustainability (a formalized evolution of the working group’s faculty and professional staff) that will be submitting the second STARS report in March. He said the amount of effort and coordination to gather data related to institutional infrastructure, practices and audiences, in order to submit the reports, was vast and time-consuming, but necessary.

“We were pleasantly surprised that when we reached out to all sorts of people all over campus — because there are 1,300 data points and 1,300 questions we had to answer — everyone was happy to help and share data,” said Solomon. “No one ever said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ Instead, it was, ‘What can I do?’”

The criteria for both submitting and grading STARS reports is specific and precise, and the data gathered to be graded reflects that. For example, the “academics” category contains curriculum and research categories, which each have their own metrics for being graded; the curriculum subcategory evaluates an institution’s academic courses, learning outcomes, undergraduate and graduate programs, immersive experience, sustainability literacy assessment, incentives for developing courses and campus as a living laboratory. To submit data related to the academic courses sub-subcategory, for example, the Drexel team sought and compiled information about the total number of undergraduate and graduate courses that were about or included sustainability (for undergraduates: 55 sustainability courses and 193 courses including sustainability; for graduates: 38 sustainability courses and 86 courses including sustainability), the number of academic departments offering those courses (37 departments) and what fields those courses are offered in (politics, design, nutrition sciences, finance and more) .

“It’s one thing to say we do a good job teaching courses about sustainability, and it’s another thing to say how many sustainability courses we are teaching,” said Solomon. “And, of course, it’s huge just to be able to say how many sustainability courses there are! We put a lot of work into our report, but we need to do a better job of accumulating and verifying that kind of data and making sure that people are aware of why we’re going through this effort.”

Already going through the submittal process for the original STARS report has showed not only how and where the University can improve, but also what else could be included in a second report.

“With our first submission, we were really hesitant,” said Solomon. “This time around, we’re much more thorough in pursuing leads and trying to go after things to include. And in digging in the details of how we were graded in our first report, we’ve learned a lot. We’re expecting to gain points in areas we didn’t think or know about a year ago — even little things like putting tips on our website about sustainability things that Dragons can do. Those little things add up.”

Like last time, Drexel will be submitting the STARS report with ongoing programs, strategies and goals that are unable to be reported on at this time. For example, his team is looking into including a food digester in the Urban Eatery (in addition to the one in the Handschumacher “Hans” Dining Center), but that’s still in the works.

“We’ve done a lot more things in the process than we’ve finished, but we’re making a lot of improvement towards where we need to be,” said Solomon.

Drexel faculty: Solomon and his collaborators with the Climate and Sustainability Working Group would be happy to speak in classes about sustainability, as they have in the past — feel free to reach out to them!