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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

First Annual Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award 2013

STARS 2.0 is 2013’s accomplishment that will have the most lasting and 
influential effect on campus sustainability, bar none.

By Dave Newport

One of the reasons editors like to give out awards is they help highlight major trends, accomplishments, or events and thus help benchmark where we are.

So it is with the First Annual Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award. Decided unanimously by a committee of one, this award is meant to remember 2013 not as a year of turmoil or incremental change in campus sustainability as some would hold, but as a year in which major progress occurred.

That major progress—and the Person of the Year for 2013—is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) version 2.0. Yes indeed, while there were plenty of significant wins and losses in 2013, this year’s rollout of a substantially upgraded STARS is the victory that will have the most lasting and influential effect on campus sustainability, bar none.

It takes a village

Obviously, Person of the Year is a bit of a misnomer, on purpose. Indeed, STARS is not a person—but a vast team.  One of STARS’ unique strengths is that it is very much a community effort.  

STARS’ collaborative and inclusive development and decision-making process is a model of effective leadership and governance.  About 100 of our colleagues sit on the STARS Steering or various Technical Advisory committees. More participated in the various rounds of public comment and input on the iterations of new approaches.  Add in some partner organizations and very competent AASHE staff and a star was, well, reborn.

Beyond modeling how inclusive, democratic and fully transparent governance and leadership can and should work in a sustainability organization—STARS is profoundly changing the landscape of campus sustainability and thus of higher education. 

Over 625 institutions are using STARS—that is creeping up on 15% of all US campuses.  In just over three years since its official birth, STARS has created huge momentum.  Yes, the usual suspect sustainability leaders are among the group of campuses using STARS.  But so are many campuses that, no offense, few have heard of.  All types of campus; big, small, community college, private, public, and HBCU.

Do you believe in miracles?

STARS has organized schools around sustainability without defining it; a miracle some might say. Yet in its own way STARS provides a de facto definition: the breadth of STARS’ credits span operations, academics, policy, social efforts, economic, community impacts and so forth. Taken together, these activities define sustainability: broad, inclusive approaches to the environmental, fiscal, and social equity issues facing us all.

The inclusiveness and breadth of STARS’ credits is helping unite campus silos behind sustainability, improves campus coordination, and literally charts a map for campuses to follow on their road to sustainability.

STARS 2.0 takes that approach one better; it has better identified material contributions towards sustainability. In short, the credits are much more relevant.  This evolution helped reduce the number and complexity of metrics from the very long and onerous list required in earlier versions.  Thus, STARS 2.0 does more with less. A hackneyed phrase that in this case is true. Another miracle.

Perfection awaits

That’s not to say STARS 2.0 is perfect. While many improvements to data quality and accountability were made—we have a ways to go. For instance, only Platinum submittals will get full up audits before being awarded. So far, there are no Platinum schools.  But that specter will help father an audit system that can gradually be applied across all heavy metals over time.  In the meantime, all submittals will receive increased scrutiny by STARS staff.

Likewise, STARS awards have yet to rise to the level of notoriety of a Nobel Prize—but we’re working on that too… Better integration and visibility of STARS data within rankings from Sierra, Princeton Review and others will start in 2014. STARS brand and role in those rankings will be more visible. And there is still talk of US News using STARS in some fashion. Time will tell.

It’s not about my ideas…

I have other brilliant ideas (just ask me) to upgrade STARS that will not come to pass. Having helped birth STARS back in the day and having been on the Steering Committee ever since, I am rolling off this month.  Some of my brilliant ideas didn’t make it through the crucible of the inclusive and democratic debates that empowers STARS governance. 

Frankly, that proves the integrity of the process and the genius of STARS.  Inclusion, democracy, and transparency differentiate sustainability leadership from the cloistered, opaque and autocratic organizations we are seeking to change. In its finest tradition, sustainability is not about my ideas—but about all stakeholders’ ideas transformed through transparent, inclusive and democratic debate into a consensus that recognizes the simple fact that more voices are better than one.

Thus STARS’ governance and leadership process and STARS very existence beg an emerging important question about sustainability: 

“How do we leverage our increasing proficiency in sustainability practices to transform our organizations’ leadership and governance into the open, democratic, integrated, and inclusive model true sustainability requires?”

In other words: we are getting pretty knowledgeable about recycling, local food, bikes and so forth; so how do we build on those successes sufficient to transform the autocratic and opaque governance and leadership systems under which we labor on campus and, dare I say it, in our professional organizations, etc.? 

We have begun to research these questions and I will dig into them more as it relates to specific organizations in coming blogs and, soon, in my annual update to the Death of Campus Sustainability.

In the meantime, this is where STARS is quietly providing leadership by modeling a sustainable governance process that produced a hell of a lot of good work this year. 

This is the real genius of STARS: sustainable governance works better.

So, for that genius and for many other good decisions by all involved, and by the powers and authority invested in me by no one, I hereby bestow the First Annual 2013 Campus Sustainability Person of the Year Award on STARS 2.0. There's no big trophy or even framed whatever to hang on the wall. I do offer my sincere thanks and admiration to all of you that participated in the process, past, present and future. All of us in this business owe you our best wishes.

May ye change the world.

Happy holidays all.


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