STARS Summit: Ramping up Sustainability at Columbia

by |May 28, 2015

Jessica Prata discussing the STARS 2015 report.

For the second time in a row, Columbia University successfully achieved a gold star rating as part of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS), a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. The system has operated through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in High Education since 2010, and is the most thoroughly vetted and extensively tested international sustainability framework for colleges and universities. Columbia’s first gold star rating came in 2012. The gold rating is the second highest level of performance; the rating is based on a number of factors including institutional characteristics, academics, research, operations, planning and administration, and innovation. Numerous departments across the university collected and submitted data as part of this process, which was spearheaded by the Office of Environmental Stewardship, led by Jessica Prata, assistant vice president, and Allie Schwartz, assistant manager of communications and data. Schwartz is also a graduate of this year’s M.S. in Sustainability Management class, a program co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and the School of Continuing Education.

To celebrate and build upon the success of this gold rating achievement, on May 12, 2015, the Office of Environmental Stewardship convened a meeting of the first ever Sustainability Summit, and invited key stakeholders responsible for all sections of the STARS report, plus their senior leaders, to a roundtable discussion about the vision for advancing Columbia’s commitment to sustainability through centralized collaboration. Attendees represented a wide range of departments at the university – from Environmental Health and Safety, to Communications and Public Affairs. The diversity of the group highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the sustainability challenge.

Steve podium

Steve Cohen giving remarks at the Sustainability Summit.

Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, gave a keynote address during which he laid out the framework for sustainability and discussed the importance of collaborative planning and engagement across the university for this type of work. Joseph Ienuso, executive vice president for Facilities and Operations, thanked the group for their tremendous help in achieving this important goal, and expressed his vision for what sustainability planning at Columbia could look like. Schwartz and Prata discussed the status of the 2015 STARS Report, and presented the next steps for how the group can capitalize on its success in a meaningful way. These next steps include collecting evidence of compliance to verify the sections reported on in STARS 2015, while at the same time identifying and assembling baseline metrics wherever possible to get a more complete picture of Columbia’s environmental footprint. These activities will help in future planning, goal-setting and reporting efforts.

The Sustainability Summit concluded with a working activity, where groups brainstormed ways that departments and individuals can make improvements in areas of energy, waste and water. This activity highlighted the innovative solutions that can come about through interactive and participatory discussions and planning, and set the tone for what is hopefully a collaborative process over the next few years. Through the development of formal working groups, Columbia can clarify key indicators of success, prioritize initiatives and set measurable goals in strategic sustainability areas. Prata reported that:

“The feedback we received from summit participants will help us with the development of centralized, university-wide sustainability goals to inspire increased action around sustainability. One hundred percent of the participants who took our feedback survey stated that they found the inter-departmental working group model used for the interactive summit activity was a productive way to explore opportunity for increased collective impact. With this feedback from our colleagues, Environmental Stewardship will look to create a forum where we can continue the discussion we began at the summit and together build a road map for the next three years as the university advances towards the 2018 STARS submission.”

Sustainability planning at Columbia, much like any large organization, will require cooperation across all parties to move forward. This first meeting of the Sustainability Summit is an effort by the university, through the leadership of the Office of Environmental Stewardship, to take action on sustainability in a meaningful way and guide the decision-making process that will lead to a single action plan. As Cohen told the group, “I hope that this momentum today, driven by the STARS report and led by Jessica, Joe and their teams, will continue to push the university forward, to serve as a leader among universities and within New York City towards the transition to a sustainable university, city, and global economy.”


Inter-departmental working group at the Sustainability Summit.


Jessica Prata and Allie Schwartz presenting at the Sustainability Summit.


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