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U earns gold in sustainability assessment

Only 143 institutions boast a STARS Gold rating or better.

The University of Utah has spent more than a decade building a robust campus sustainability program. Those efforts are paying off: This month, the University of Utah earned a STARS Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, measures and encourages sustainability in all aspects of higher education.

Only 143 institutions boast a STARS Gold rating or better. More than 900 participants in 40 countries use AASHE’s STARS for publicly reporting information related to a college or university’s sustainability performance. Participants report achievements in five overall areas:

  1. Academics
  2. Engagement
  3. Operations
  4. Planning and administration
  5. Innovation and leadership

When the Sustainability Office opened in fall 2007, it had just one full-time employee. In 2011, the office submitted its first-ever STARS report. The result was Bronze. A starting point, but certainly not a satisfactory ending point. A challenge. Over the past decade, the U leaned fully into that challenge, establishing partnerships with academic and operation departments across the main and health campuses, growing curricular programming and faculty mentorship, building interdisciplinary research through the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and finally hiring a full-time chief sustainability officer in February 2020.

These steps reflect an increasingly integrated approach to sustainability across the University of Utah, said Kerry Case, U chief sustainability officer.

“This achievement represents more than a decade of strategic and important work by dozens of people across the university,” Case said. “I thank those individuals and departments for their commitment, as well as the university administration for its ongoing leadership and support for sustainability efforts at the U.”

Building success over time

The university’s Gold status comes largely from increased efforts to expand sustainability curriculum and research. The Sustainability Office and its partners targeted these areas because what the university teaches and researches has “profound impacts” beyond the campus footprint, Case said.

“Through sustainability curriculum and research, the U as an institution helps address sustainability challenges at local and global scales,” Case said. “It is critical for our operations to be more efficient; however, that cannot be the only goal. It is essential that we generate new knowledge and provide our students with the tools they need to contribute to a more just and sustainable society.”

Thanks to efforts in sustainability education, students are more likely than ever to be involved in courses with sustainability themes and learning outcomes. The Sustainability Education Advisory Committee (SEAC), which formed in 2015 to provide expertise on sustainability education initiatives and advocate for sustainability literacy, helped create sustainability course designations and embed sustainability literacy into institutional learning outcomes. SEAC includes representation from multiple colleges, departments and professional schools at the University of Utah and works closely with the General Education Curriculum Council. Thanks to SEAC’s work, 78% of academic departments at the U include sustainability course offerings.

“With so many students seeking sustainability education, our work here is really based in ensuring student engagement and success. The actions of SEAC ensure that students understand the connections between social equity and ecological integrity and prepares our students to be successful in an increasingly complex world,” said Adrienne Cachelin, director of sustainability education.

The U also saw major gains in the number of departments engaged in sustainability-related research. Of the campus departments engaged in research, 65% are looking into sustainability concerns. When the U last reported this number in 2017, it was only 40%. Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), the U’s hub for interdisciplinary sustainability research, credits improved processes for identifying faculty research in nine overlapping sustainability research themes.

“I think that our improvement in the STARS Research category is primarily a reflection of the GCSC creating a more robust system for data collection around sustainability research and scholarship on campus,” Bowen said. “We worked with partners in the Office for Global Engagement to create a new online searchable Sustainability Inventory that builds from Faculty Activity Reports, which all faculty are required to complete annually.”

The U’s total points in the STARS Operations category continue to rise with each submission. Operations includes buildings, emissions inventories, and energy and water use, among other key facets of university facility management and maintenance.

Total energy consumption and costs are the lowest level they’ve been since 2011, despite considerable growth in total building area. U Facilities Management placed a significant focus on efficiency projects, including upgrading lighting and HVAC systems, using analytics to identify failed equipment, employing controls optimization, and employing zonal scheduling, which allows for major mechanical equipment to continue serving critical needs of small zones—such as critical lab experiments or classrooms—while minimizing waste in other areas. In fiscal year 2019, these efforts contributed to an 18% reduction in energy consumption per unit of floor area compared to the 2010 baseline year. The reduction in energy consumption is a contributor to the overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Energy gets a lot of attention because it accounts for the majority of the University’s carbon footprint and potential cost savings are high,” said Chris Benson, associate director of Sustainability & Energy, Facilities Management. “Efficiency projects often have a lot of bang for the buck. I’ve always found it exciting to find these hidden pots of energy efficiency gold where it’s possible to both save a lot of money and significantly reduce emissions.”

Benson added that operational cost savings create a new source of revenue that can be reinvested into new projects annually and help fund the university’s carbon neutrality effort.

Reduction in water use continues to be a highlight for the University of Utah in its STARS reports. The U reduced potable water use by nearly 30% per weighted campus user compared to 2010. Those savings represent the cumulative impact of water-saving efforts, which include installing high-efficiency toilets and sinks in renovations and new construction, as well as improving irrigation systems and repairing leaks, among other efforts. “Weighted campus user” is a measurement that includes students and employees who live on campus, as well as those who travel to campus for work or school.

Commitment to ongoing improvement

STARS is an important tool for universities to benchmark successes, but it also highlights opportunities for improvement. The University of Utah remains committed to sustainability leadership. Efforts continue to source electricity from renewable sources and increase building electrification. Sustainability will continue to partner with academic departments to grow curriculum and research, particularly around equity-focused climate resilience. The U can further develop sustainable investing and purchasing strategies, as well as enhance campus and public engagement. In short, the work continues, but it is nice to pause and acknowledge the progress along the way.

Read the full University of Utah STARS report online.