Thursday, August 22, 2013

Questioning the Sierra Magazine "Coolest School" Rankings

Everyone loves a list. Put something in the form of a top 10, 50 or 100 and it guarantees to drive traffic to an article. This was certainly true of Sierra Magazine's "Coolest School" list, which was picked up by numerous outlets including list & slideshow reposter extraordinaire the Huffington Post. While I certainly have no love lost for my former employer, this is a criticism of the methodology to generate this list, rather than of the institution that happened to be ranked #1. The Sierra article cites a number of laudable initiatives, but UConn doesn't even crack the top 22 honor roll on the same topic by the Princeton Review. So clearly someone's research methodology is flawed. Here is Sierra Magazine's methodology. The names  on document that was self-reported to the magazine appear to be current students involved in Eco-Husky.

If what I've observed at UConn is tops in the nation, everyone is doing a pretty lousy job making colleges greenier. For example, UConn has grown with a blatant disregard for water resources. UConn has grown its student body in recent years and the downtown development puts further strain on the water resources. Until a pipeline can be installed to transport in water from off-site, one can anticipate continuing to drain the Fenton River beyond its breaking point, especially during dry periods. There are questions about whether or not the current plan is adequate anyway.

When I was there, I frequently bemoaned the use of recycling bins as trash cans and vice versa, although I have yet to be on a campus where this wasn't a problem. I have great enthusiasm for UConn's Think Outside the Bottle campaign, as the negative impacts of bottle water are well-documented; however, the university catering service still lists "UConn Natural Spring Water" as a product so I assume the university is still selling branded bottled water on campus. Despite being a large campus spread out over 3000 acres, I was always struck by the lack of bicycles as a mode of transportation even with several off-campus housing facilities within a couple miles. The Sierra Magazine article mentions bicycle shares, but unless they've drastically increased the number of racks on campus (and if they did, they've hidden them really well), I can't blame students for being reluctant to commute to class by bicycle. The Storrs Center development has, and will further, increase traffic with the apartments and businesses, yet no one saw fit to include bicycle lanes in the plan (bicycle racks are also limited). This does nothing to make the area greener or safer. The Board of Directors includes members of the town and university.

Personal observations seem to contradict the Sierra Magazine reports to some degree. Certainly no campus is, or can be expected to be, 100% green yet. Decreasing the environmental impact of campuses on the surrounding areas is important for sustainability. The question is, do Sierra Magazine's rankings reflect the green reality of those campuses? How accurate are any of these lists that perpetuate via social media?

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