Eleven Catholic colleges among Sierra Club’s ‘cool schools’

Nearly a dozen Catholic schools made the cut when Sierra Club presented earlier this month its list of America’s greenest universities.

A total of 11 Catholic colleges and universities were among the 153 “cool schools” ranked by Sierra Club and featured in the September/October issue of Sierra magazine. The voluntary exercise was open to all four-year degree-granting undergraduate colleges and universities in the U.S. Each completed a questionnaire about campus sustainability practices, which provided the data used in the rankings.

The national conservationist group said on its website it hopes the rankings, in its ninth year, act as a guide for prospective students conscious of environmental issues, but also “to spur productive competition” among campuses while at the same time raising eco-standards.

The 153 participating schools were scored out of a possible 1,000 points along 11 categories covering a variety of actions, among them:

  • sustainability-focused courses, programs, faculty and departments;
  • energy use from alternative or renewable sources;
  • eco-friendly investment policies;
  • emphasis on sustainability in strategic plans;
  • reducing water consumption, waste (including food waste) and recycling electronic waste;
  • encouraging bike-sharing, carpooling, telecommuting and public transportation;
  • energy-saving lights and sensors;
  • on-campus green spaces and student sustainability groups.

With 859.75 out of 1,000 points, the University of California-Irvine topped the list for the second consecutive year. Sierra praised the southern California school for its trash management, offering of rebates and discounts to encourage public transportation, and use of solar power in pursuit of going carbon neutral by 2025.

The first Catholic school appeared at the midway point in the “cool schools” rankings, with Santa Clara University at no. 50. Other Catholic schools included the University of San Diego (69), Loyola Marymount University (81), Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (95), St. Louis University (100), St. John’s University, in New York (102), Gonzaga University (109), Villanova University (110), the University of Dayton, in Ohio (127), Creighton University (138), and Saint John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn. (146).

While only one broke the top third of overall scores for participating schools, the Catholic institutions fared better in some of the individual categories.

Of the 90 schools with perfect scores in sustainability planning, three were Catholic: Aquinas, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, which was also among a dozen schools with perfect scores in investments. Dayton and St. Louis joined 61 other schools in achieving perfect scores in innovation.

In addition, the University of San Diego and Villanova ranked fourth in the energy and food categories, respectively; Santa Clara was eighth in transportation; Aquinas was 10th in waste; and St. John’s (NY) was 12th in water.

In 10 of the 11 categories, at least five Catholic schools placed in the top 100.

More: “Catholic universities among California’s top solar schools” (June 18, 2013)

As for why Catholic schools may lag behind the pack on sustainability, limited financial capacity for such initiatives may play a part, said Dayton interim provost Paul Benson. But more so, he’s sensed that Catholic campuses have not seen the same type of student-led campaigns that have frequently led to eco-improvements elsewhere.

“It’s not that Catholic students don’t care about these things, but they often don’t translate their concern for the environment and sustainability into an activist mode, and as a result, I think that Catholic institutions have been somewhat slower to respond to student interest,” Benson told NCR.

In June 2014, Dayton, a Marianist-run school, announced it would divest its endowment from fossil fuels -- the first U.S. Catholic higher-ed institution to do so -- but unlike other schools nationwide that made the move, the impetus didn’t originate with students. A student-led campaign over two-plus years at Georgetown University resulted in June in the Jesuit school divesting from coal companies

But Benson has detected growing momentum among students on Catholic campuses in assuming that that advocate role, in part due to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

‘I think there’s evidence that the ramifications of the pope’s encyclical will be far-reaching and certainly has inspired students in an important way,” he said.

In November, Dayton will hold a conference for Catholic institutions on divestment, and another conference set for March will take a cross-disciplinary look at the encyclical and sustainability in hopes of producing teaching resources for Catholic universities to implement into their curricula. Such efforts, particularly those emerging from its recently formed Hanley Sustainability Institute, are expected to yield significant improvements in implementing sustainability practices in campus operations and in its classrooms.

In turn, that could see Dayton (nicknamed the Flyers) rise in the Sierra Club’s and other rankings. Benson said rankings like those from Sierra Club or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education are helpful as they allow schools to learn from those at the forefront and to measure how they stack up.

“It gives us a broad perspective on where we stand, and we think it’s healthy to scrutinize ourselves, to motivate ourselves to do more in the sustainability arena,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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