WMU expands, re-envisions definition and measures for sustainability

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Photo of WMU's electric car charging station.

WMU vehicles at the University's electric car charging station

KALAMAZOO—Western Michigan University is embracing a new nationwide program aimed at expanding how higher education views sustainability and transforming the way campuses collect data to document sustainability achievements.

The University is a new participant in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System—known as STARS—administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. More than 230 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada are part of the program that offers its own sustainability assessment and rating system.

The STARS program involves publicly reporting comprehensive information related to a college or university’s sustainability performance.

Factors evaluated by the program

  • Academics
  • Engagement on campus and in the community
  • Operations
  • Planning and administration
  • innovation

The STARS initiative at WMU falls under the aegis of WMU's strategic planning initiative. According to Dr. Jody Brylinsky, vice provost for institutional effectiveness, the University is now registered with STARS and has a year to submit its first round of data and receive its first overall STARS rating. Thereafter, WMU will register and submit data on a yearly basis.

In addition to providing its own data platform that allows colleges to report and compare consistent pieces of information, the STARS initiative offers its own assessment of member institutions. The STARS ratings cover five levels of achievement.

"We see this as a wonderful tool to use for planning and for gathering data that can be used internally and to respond quickly and with great accuracy to the myriad external requests we get for information about our sustainability achievements," Brylinsky says. "The beauty of this program is that it provides a collection platform organized in a way that will make it easy for our campus community to network and connect with others on campus who are doing similar activities."

Brylinsky notes that the STARS system is not often used by very large universities, but it is particularly well suited to WMU because is takes the same broad definition of sustainability that has become the hallmark of the University's commitment. The data gathered will not solely focus on environmental issues, but will cover such items as access, social sustainability, food safety and research. 

Dr. Harold Glasser, WMU's executive director for sustainability, was part of the original technical advisory committee that created STARS. He is enthusiastic about the opportunity for the campus to use the STARS system to better document the breadth of activity that is going on to build a campus culture of sustainability. In particular, he says, there is a tremendous amount of superb work in the realm of curriculum and research that needs to be documented along with the extensive energy conservation and environmental best practices for which WMU is already known.

"The sustainability data we collect will provide a finer mesh, which will give a more complete and detailed picture of all that we do," Glasser says. "It will also provide information necessary to create change where it is needed. If we remain in the system, the time series data will allow us to accurately measure our progress from year to year in the very broad way we have always approached and defined sustainability."

About the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

AASHE is an association of colleges and universities that are working to create a sustainable future. AASHE's mission is to empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation.  It provides resources, professional development and a network of support to enable institutions of higher education to model and advance sustainability in everything they do, from governance and operations to education and research. For more information about AASHE and its STARS program, visit www.aashe.org.