Penn State Achieves Silver Rating In First Sustainability Review

Penn State officially submitted its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System report to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education recently, receiving a rating of silver for its performance at University Park.
           This is the first comprehensive survey of sustainability initiatives and outcomes in the history of the University. Plans are to include all campuses and locations in the next submission in two to three years.
            "The Pennsylvania State University is very pleased to be among the Charter Participants in AASHE STARS. Sustainability is an integral part of Penn State's mission as a global leader in teaching, research and service," said Penn State President Graham Spanier. "We recognize that sustainability represents one of the nation's most pressing issues, and higher education can play a unique role in modeling solutions and producing graduates who can lead society in this new direction."
            STARS reports on three primary areas: education and research; operations; and planning, administration and engagement. Each category is further divided into subcategories, such as curriculum, research, purchasing and public engagement. A fourth reporting area, innovation, allows institutions to include new initiatives in sustainability that otherwise might not have been considered for assessment. STARS offers four rating levels: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. These ratings are based on data submitted by each participating institution.
            The Penn State STARS report gathered an unprecedented amount and type of information about, for example, how many faculty conduct sustainability-related research, teach courses on sustainability and how many students and employees use alternative transportation.
            "In a field where there are so many different strategies and perspectives defining the landscape, it is critical that we have a common set of standards to measure progress towards sustainability in a way that encourages collaboration among institutions of higher education," said Erik Foley, manager of sustainability programs at Penn State. "The STARS data provides a superb baseline to support the planning, implementation and assessment of the University’s future sustainability initiatives."
            In spring 2011, Executive Vice President and Provost Rodney Erickson created the University Sustainability Council, composed of students, faculty, staff and administrators, to draft Penn State's first Strategic Plan for Sustainability. Foley believes the analysis and investigation needed to complete the STARS report has been beneficial to the process of creating the Strategic Plan. 
            “One of the benefits of participating in STARS is that it encouraged us to assess where we were as an institution. It shed light on areas where we thought we were doing well and brought into clearer focus our strengths and opportunities,” said Foley.
            STARS participation also gave the University’s STARS Steering Committee an opportunity to evaluate the level of sustainability initiatives Penn State offers to students through academic programs, research and co-curricular learning.
            "Our research for the STARS report provided us with an inventory of sustainability in the curriculum. We have many committed faculty members teaching wonderful courses, but we still have far to go," said Susannah Barsom, associate director of Penn State’s Center for Sustainability. "With students asking for more sustainability content, instructors ready to include it in their courses, and employers eager to hire graduates who are sustainability leaders, Penn State is in an ideal position to cultivate a sustainability-focused curriculum."
            Penn State Outreach's many innovative programs and services were another key aspect of STARS’ Public Engagement analysis, where institutions “harness their financial and academic resources to address community needs.”
            "The STARS effort was a real catalyst for Penn State Outreach to look strategically at its many sustainability-related programs," said Nancy Franklin, director of Outreach sustainability initiatives and assistant director of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. "From public broadcasting to cooperative extension to the world campus, we offer an impressive array of programs that the STARS process allowed us to see in a whole new light."
            The steering committee also learned that the STARS system is an evolving tool and will keep working with AASHE to improve it over time. For example, the current version of STARS fell short in its ability to truly allow a large research institution such as Penn State to account for the depth and breadth of its outreach programming. Penn State's STARS Steering Committee, which led the data collection effort, included Denice Wardrop, Patricia Craig, Mary Easterling, Susannah Barsom, Sharon Hoover, Shelley McKeague, Jennifer Oliver, Nancy Franklin, Erik Foley and Lydia Vandenbergh. Although these members led the collection process, there were many Penn Staters that assisted them during the past 18 months.
            As of July 2011, 263 institutions are registered for STARS, 229 of which are charter participants. So far, 77 institutions have earned a STARS rating, including Big Ten counterparts Indiana University - Bloomington; University of Minnesota - Twin Cities; and Michigan State University.
            For more information about Penn State's participation in STARS, contact Erik Foley by sending email to: or 814-865-2291. The University’s full STARS report is viewable on AASHE’s STARS website.
            For more information, visit Penn State’s Strategic Plan for Sustainability.


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