Penn State Behrend has earned a bronze rating from STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System. The rating, which is valid for three years, is the result of a comprehensive, yearlong assessment of the college’s sustainability efforts.
Behrend is the first Penn State commonwealth campus to earn a STARS rating, which is issued by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
The rating provides a baseline assessment of the college’s work toward environmental, social and economic sustainability. Data is bundled in five primary categories – academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership – that reflect a coordinated, college-wide approach to sustainability. The full report is available at the STARS website.
“This tells us where we are, in terms of sustainability, and what steps we need to take next,” said Sherri “Sam” Mason, Penn State Behrend’s sustainability coordinator. “It will help us prioritize the work ahead – identifying both the low-hanging fruit and the more ambitious, and more challenging, efforts to be undertaken.”
In the initial report, the college earned high marks for the percentage of faculty and staff who are engaged in sustainability-related research, including studies of the biodiversity on and near the Behrend campus. That includes Wintergreen Gorge, which is home to three endangered plant species.
Another highlight, Mason said, is the commitment to the Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility by those engaged in purchasing activities across the college. The Sullivan principles, which encourage contracts with minority, disadvantaged or female-owned businesses, are an example of social sustainability – a component of sustainability work that often is overlooked, Mason said.
“It’s really important that we move beyond environmentalism and broaden our umbrella to include social and racial sustainability,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re just preaching to the choir.
“All of this is connected,” she said. “You can’t expect a single mom with two kids to worry about the burning rainforest when she’s struggling to put food on the table. You have to address the social and economic components first.”
The STARS report does point to metrics that can be improved, including energy use at Behrend. With more than 1.6 million square feet of building space and a fleet of 43 vehicles, operations at the college require considerable volumes of electricity, natural gas and fuel oil.
“It’s going to take some time and commitment to reduce that energy footprint,” Mason said. The obvious steps – switching to more efficient light fixtures, adding insulation and fitting solar panels onto rooftops – require significant investment.
There is support for that work across the University. Since 2005, Penn State has reduced its campus greenhouse gas emissions by 32%. Through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings challenge, the University is making a $60 million investment in energy efficiency and conservation initiatives.
As that effort takes shape, Mason will look for smaller, more nuanced improvements.
“When you are able to show people that the effort they’re putting in is making a difference, that’s a morale boost for everyone,” she said. “That’s how you get more people on board.”