Universities don't ace the green test

How are institutions managing their resources? And how much information do they share? Fortune's Bethany McLean shares a new report.

By Bethany McLean, Fortune editor-at-large

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, and you can probably find a college professor opining on something - global warming, food security, poverty, you name it. But it isn't so easy to find anyone willing to opine on a college or university's practices in those same areas.

Or at least, it wasn't that easy until Mark Orlowski came along. Orlowski founded the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a Cambridge-based not-for-profit that is a special project fund of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. The Institute has just released an in-depth report called the College Sustainability Report Card that looks at the policies and procedures of 100 leading colleges and universities which hold more than $258 billion, or 75 percent of all higher education investments.

The report aims to shine a light on the one part of a higher education institution's practices that aren't already scrutinized. After all, you can find plenty of statistics on academic achievement and financial aid. But as the report notes, "the focus has not been on how schools, as institutions, manage their resources."

The report grades institutions across seven major categories: climate change and energy, green building, food and recycling, administration, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement.

Four schools earned an overall grade of A - Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford and Williams. There are lots of cool, weird facts to be found. Harvard, for instance, has a Green Campus Initiative, which has a staff of 16 full-time employees and 40 student part-timers. Dartmouth has an on-going project to organize local farmers in New Hampshire and Vermont to provide a sustainable source of local foods to the college. (Whatever happened to the nasty processed meat-like substances we all remember from my college days?)

And did you know that in 2000, Stanford adopted shareholder voting guidelines that ensure that the university will vote in favor of climate change proposals? Or that NYU is on PETA's top ten list of best universities for vegetarians and vegans?

Amusingly enough, the lowest grade of D minus appears to have gone to the Princeton Theological Seminary, which among other failings has no formal sustainability policies, no organic food initiative, no green building policy, and invests only to maximize profit. (The nerve.)

Close behind is Lafayette University, with an overall grade of "D+" - this despite the fact that a team of students and teachers are working on a project to potentially devote the school's 200 acre farm to the production of crops for campus biofuel. Maybe it's the "potentially" that is the problem.

There are some other grades of D- and D+ - including the University of Chicago - but there aren't any schools that flat-out failed. That said, there isn't much evidence of grade-inflation, either. A quick scan reveals a preponderance of "Cs."

In the "endowment transparency" section - haven't you often wondered whether colleges put their money where their mouths are? - the report approves of Purdue's practice of making its proxy voting record and list of endowment holdings available to the public.

In contrast, Baylor and lots of other schools actually got"Fs" in this specific area for only making information available to trustees and senior administrators, not the public. Harvard, which has the biggest endowment of all, only got a "C" for endowment transparency. (How satisfying is that? Harvard with a "C"!) And Harvard scored better than Yale, which got a "D," as did Princeton.

For more fun facts and salacious details, check out http://www.endowmentinstitute.org/sustainability/ Top of page