Earlier this week, a new ranking for the University of Wisconsin was announced. It wasn’t for party schools or gameday college towns. No, this time it was something more serious, and unfortunately, UW didn’t perform as well as it typically does in the lighter-hearted categories.
UW ranked last among Big 10 schools for sustainability in a report released Monday.
The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System is a third-party program which helps higher education institutions understand their impact in sustainability, while highlighting areas for improvement. The report is based on self-reported data and STARS compares data with that of other similar institutions.
UW did perform relatively well in categories of water use, diversity and affordability, coordination and planning, well-being and work, transportation, and purchasing. But it was sorely lacking in performance when it came to academic curriculum and research, campus and public engagement, building maintenance, use of renewable energy, food and beverage purchasing, and investment and finance, among others.
It’s important to note that UW has taken some steps toward addressing issues related to sustainability, such as significantly reducing the use of disposable containers in University Dining Halls, diverting more than 450 tons of organic waste from landfills to composting and an energy-producing anaerobic digester and hiring the institution’s first full-time director of sustainability.
But it’s also important for UW administration as well as students to recognize that the results of this report should only guide us forward.
In a media advisory preempting the announcement of the results, Chancellor Rebecca Blank highlighted the importance of addressing and improving UW’s sustainability efforts.
“Sustainability is woven into the fabric of the University of Wisconsin–Madison,” Blank said. “Our commitment to conservation and stewardship now runs through every aspect of our campus as we continue striving toward a more sustainable community.”
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The results identified particular weaknesses in community engagement and education about sustainability, and as an institution of higher education, those must be priorities — that is, if sustainability truly is woven into UW’s fabric.
Education and engagement are important for all organizations, corporations and institutions, but for an institution whose primary goal is to educate, that category really must be a priority — before quick fixes like changing takeout box policies.
It may be true that sustainability is woven into UW’s fabric, but for progress to be successful, all of us — that includes students, faculty, administration and community members — must be committed to being educated and engaged about issues related to sustainability, the environment and the climate.
For UW, this means increasing the availability of sustainability-related education in class. Maybe this includes introducing a breadth requirement stipulating that all students must take a class related to the environment or sustainability. In this way, all UW students would be exposed to this issue during their college career, and we would be given the chance to engage with the issue in a way that is palatable and interesting.
For students, this means paying attention to these issues and how they affect the things around you. It means working to educate yourself and engaging with those around you when there are things like classes, lectures and events happening.
And for all of us, this means taking a look at our own power, given our role and asking what we can achieve. Students don’t have individual power to dismantle oppressive capitalist institutions which perpetuate ideals of anti-environmental policy and society. But as a whole, students do have collective power to implore those with institutional power to take action.
So to students — keep speaking up about this issue. Changes in recent years have shown us that change is possible, albeit slow. And for the university — if sustainability truly is woven into the fabric of UW, it’s important to recognize how the priorities of the university as a whole might interact with sustainability, as well as how best to leverage the institution’s power in this battle against climate change.
Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a senior studying math and Chinese.