USC was given a grade of B-minus in late October for its efforts at promoting and achieving environmental sustainability on campus, a slight improvement from the C-plus the university had previously received for three years in a row.
The College Sustainability Report Card is an annual assessment by the Sustainability Endowments Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 that attempts to further sustainability on college campuses, by commenting on their environmental efforts.
USC officials acknowledged a lag in sustainability efforts at USC.
“[The grading system] is a complicated set of things. USC has been doing better. We’ve been sort of behind the curve on sustainability issues, but we’re catching up,” said Mark Bernstein, managing director of USC’s Energy Institute.
The report evaluates colleges and universities on their performance in nine aspects of sustainability policies and practices: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement.
Bernstein said that USC is not performing as well as its competitors — Stanford University received an A-minus and UCLA received a B — but the university has been making strides to become more environmentally sustainable.
“We haven’t been a leader [but] we’re not at the bottom. We’re kind of in the middle of the pack,” he said. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job overall.”
The institute gave USC an A in four categories: administration, food and recycling, transportation, and investment priorities.
According to the report card, 40 percent of USC students commute to campus via “environmentally preferable methods,” and the university spends more than 5 percent of its food budget on local products and purchases organic food items.
The university received its lowest grade, an F, in shareholder engagement.
According to the institute, the details of proxy voting — the process by which a university considers and votes on policies regarding climate change and other related issues — are handled by USC’s investment managers rather than a “shareholder responsibility committee,” which would involve students, faculty and alumni input.
In climate change and energy, green building, and endowment transparency, the university received C grades.
USC has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent since 2001. In addition, 14 percent of the electricity purchased for campus comes from renewable sources, according to the report card.
This is in comparison with Stanford University, which received an A in climate change and energy, and aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 20 percent before 2020.
“We really need to push the envelope on reducing energy consumption. We need to do our own solar installations and take a serious look at water consumption,” Bernstein said.
USC Beyond Coal — a group committed to reducing the university’s dependence on coal — has been active in promoting sustainability through its work with USC administration, said Carrell Hambrick, a senior majoring in fine arts who is involved in the group.
Last year, the group lobbied then-President Steven B. Sample to write a letter to L.A. Department of Water and Power expressing USC’s support of the Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa commitment to ending the city’s dependence on coal by 2020.
Hambrick said the university is in a good position to take action to improve its sustainability because of its resources.
“We can be doing so much for sustainability,” she said. “The fact that we have a sustainability department is a really good sign, and [the fact that] we have 11 environmental groups on campus shows that this has been thought about a lot.”
Despite these myriad opportunities, Hambrick said USC’s overall grade of B-minus was fitting because the university could be making better use of its own resources.
“It’s a pretty fair assessment. At the end of the day, if we do want to advance our sustainability portfolio, the university has to be more diplomatic,” Hambrick said.
Rosie Murphy, a freshman majoring in history also involved in USC Beyond Coal, expressed similar sentiments that the university has made progress but can continue to do more to be a leader.
“USC has definitely done a lot of awesome things,” Murphy said. “The whole campus center is LEED certified, there is recycling everywhere on campus and Campus Cruiser, [which is] a really incredible initiative.”
“USC is obviously the 23rd best school; we totally have … the minds, the educational opportunities, and being in L.A., the weather has extra capacity for solar energy,” she said. “It would be really incredible if the university could tap some of those resources.”