Dancing with the STARS

Ashley Thorne

Campus sustainatopians have decided it’s time to turn their romance with sustainability theory into action—measurable action. They will measure by reading the STARS. 

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has published an early version of a project called the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). AASHE’s website says STARS is "a voluntary, self-reporting framework for gauging relative progress toward sustainability for colleges and universities." STARS is a points system that measures institutions’ sustainability initiatives in Education & Research; Operations; and Planning, Administration & Engagement.

This isn’t the first tool created to quantify sustainability efforts. Companies chase LEED certification as hungrily as they chase profits. Online carbon footprint calculators are as common as IQ tests. Earthscore, required reading for students in Environmental Literacy (ENVL 105) at CSU-Chico, is a guidebook that tallies “impact points” (bad) such as having children, and weighs them against “action points” (good) such as planting trees. And the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) requires its signatories to file regular reports on the campus’s greenhouse gas emissions, its climate action plan, and its infusion of sustainability education into the curriculum.

STARS includes a climate plan, but it is worth only 2 points out of a possible 300. The credit checklist resembles a college program map, with credit numbers, titles, and possible points. It would seem that colleges can earn some sort of degree in sustainability. Will AASHE offer a master’s? A Ph.D.? AASHE has stated that STARS is voluntary, but it does cost between $650 and $1,400 for a college to register to participate, depending on when the school registers and whether it is an AASHE member. So far 22 colleges and universities, most of which are ACUPCC signatories, have signed on as charter participants.

A short power point presentation tells more about STARS, and a 267-page technical manual explains each credit and how score calculation works.

Let’s take a look at the credit checklist, particularly the Education and Research category. It includes:  

  •           Sustainability in New Student Orientation
  •           Sustainability-Focused Courses*
  •           Sustainability-Related Courses*
  •           Sustainability Learning Outcomes*
  •           Incentives for Developing Sustainability Courses
  •           Faculty Involved in Sustainability Research*
  •           Interdisciplinary Research in Tenure and Promotion

*Credits can earn up to 10 possible points. Other than Greenhouse Gas Reduction, these are the highest earning credits (out of 67 total credits).

Some of the STARS credits, especially in Operations, are simply environmental strategies, such as reducing pesticide use, diverting waste from landfills, and getting students to walk or ride a bike around campus instead of driving. But pressure to implement sustainability into the curriculum and into faculty tenure and promotion requirements is more troubling. For many years the National Association of Scholars has witnessed what happens when universities bow to ideologies at the expense of education.  And this spring NAS exposed Virginia Tech imposing a political litmus test on its faculty by requiring “diversity” service for promotion and tenure—chilling the atmosphere for faculty who did not subscribe to the diversity doctrine.

Sustainability is an ideology. Its advocates build support by appealing to our sense of environmental responsibility, but sustainability is bigger than the environment. It encompasses radical political, social, and economic programs. A reader of our website, Rico776, recently commented on the article, “Sustainability is a Waste.” His question helps draw out the difference between environmentalism and sustainability:

Would you say the same things if a different word were used in place of sustainability? What if the effort at universities was not about sustainability and all the accompanying social causes that have been attached, but instead was framed around the idea of conservation? Energy conservation saves money. Would you be opposed to an energy conservation initiative? I ask because I too am opposed to sustainability as it has been defined by the contemporary environmentalists, but I am not opposed to energy conservation measures if they save money for the university, especially in these tough times.

I responded:

Dear Rico776,

You asked if we would be "opposed to an energy conservation initiative" on campus, as opposed to sustainability initiatives. Good question. While conservation of the environment is comprised in the sustainability movement, it makes up only a part of it and should not be mistaken to be interchangeable with sustainability. The National Association of Scholars is not opposed to energy-saving and money-saving efforts. We are concerned, however, when colleges and universities use a seemingly blameless term like "sustainability" to advance a particular ideological agenda. The campus "diversity" doctrine has been used in similar ways. Of course no one is opposed to the idea of diversity. But when you see the things "diversity" is used to justify - racial preferences, identity group segregation, prejudice - you should doubt the merits of such a principle. The same goes for the sustainability movement, which sells eco-responsibility but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms.

STARS is right on track with this scheme: the technical manual defines “Sustainability-Focused Courses” as those which “concentrate on the concept of sustainability, including its social, economic, and environmental dimensions, or examine an issue or topic using sustainability as a lens.”

So as universities begin dancing with the STARS, how will they change their educational mission to adapt to the sustainabully agenda? We’ll continue STARS-gazing and will keep our readers updated.

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