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Saturday, October 11, 2014

STARS, Socrates and Ronald Reagan

If “the unexamined life is not worth living,”
perhaps the unexamined STARS report is not worth filing

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

Socrates pisses me off. Notwithstanding his heroic Hemlock choice, it takes major ego to lay down the unequivocal indictment "the unexamined life is not worth living." Who is this guy to decide whose life is valuable and whose is not? 

I love my unexamined life. Makes me happy...

Speaking of major ego, who is so engorged by bloated id that taking on a classic master is even an option?

OK, deflate.

Actually, I don't really dislike Socrates, I just don't think he went far enough with that statement. It's not about examining your life. It's about what you do with the results. My post-NDE ruminations have detected numerous Big Rocks inside me that need to be moved/blown up. But, as they are still sitting there, that just creates internal angst about my inability/unwillingness to act. 

Someday maybe.*

The road more traveled...

So in the absence of honest and productive work on my inner-person perils, I push away at those external forces I am more motivated/able to move. 

This year, one Big External Rock was STARS. In compiling our report I noticed how it parallels Socrates' pointed-gun ultimatum to live an examined life. 

Sort of.

STARS offers a structured checklist by which sustainabilistas can examine their own campuses' existence. Born as a self-reporting system of noble intent, STARS growth and acceptance has been somewhat held back by a perceived lack of accountability. 

Indeed, STARS’ station in the world was rattled last month by a report from the Sustainable Endowments Institute that found STARS’ credibility wanting. At issue was the disparate interpretation of various credits found in many STARS reports. An Inside Higher Ed news report was not flattering either.

But no argument.

Disparate interpretations, errors, and varying levels of, shall we say, competence in compiling data that is relevant and responsive to STARS requirements have dogged many STARS reports, including my own. As one of STARS’ three original co-creators and an original steering committee member, I know well STARS’ strengths and weaknesses—and requirements--and I still have found errors in my previous reports.

Indeed, STARS is a self-portrait. And each individual STARS self-portrait is fraught with all the imperfections of the artist’s hand, eyes and, like Vincent Van Gogh, inner turmoil.

But STARS is not art.

Get it right, write or wrong…

So, my campus wanted to make sure we at least got our own self examination right. 

We shopped around for independent third party reviewers capable of examining our STARS findings and offering meaningful commentary. Wow; sticker shock. Deloitte, PWC et al are in the business of auditing corporate GRI reports and opining on their accuracy. Get ready for five and six figure fees.

We needed kinder and gentler. What we found was a Philadelphia consulting firm with a former EPA enforcement attorney and other fine folks who were developing a sort of Turbo Tax checklist process for STARS. We offered to be their first STARS client. Upon conclusion of their review and our corrections, we became STARS first official third-party-reviewed guinea pig. The cost was modest.

What came back from their review was a little shocking. Little mistakes, broken links, but also a few significant faux pas. It was also kinda cute that these EPA types listed our foibles and the necessary "Corrective Actions." Old jargon never dies.

But overall it was inspiring. We learned a lot and are more comfortable with our self-examination. And we are more defensible--especially with internal stakeholders who now take the work more seriously. 

Perhaps Socrates was right; if “the unexamined life is not worth living,” perhaps the unexamined STARS report is not worth filing. 

“And, constant stars, in them I read such art as truth and beauty shall together thrive”

Maybe I am too harsh. STARS reports—flaws and all—are a good starting point and framework by which to devise and implement a campus sustainability action plan. Very true. 

For instance, STARS Reporter metrics don’t even seek to grade performance. STARS Reporters are all about commitment to change. STARS vision is about mapping pathways and metrics that can alter campuses towards a more sustainable future. These and other outcomes were part of the early vision of STARS.

But that was then and this is now. 

STARS is entering its seventh year of existence. Over 650 campuses around the world now use it for some purpose. OK, that’s a start, but in the US alone there are over 4,000 campuses. So a ways to go. STARS may be only seven years old, but the world needs STARS—and STARS needs the world. 


As one of STARS' parents, I love our child. But if we want to change the world through STARS it needs to be loved more by more people. It takes a village. STARS needs to grow into a mature, respected and loveable adult so the vision of being an effective instrument of change can be realized. 

Only a few years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that STARS was emerging as a credible platform in response to other more subjective rating instruments that had evolved. Indeed, as we launched STARS, the Chronicle opined that, “Many think that [STARS] will ultimately become the gold standard of sustainability evaluations…” 

Let’s not squander that potential.

For their part, STARS' staff do a great job now of reviewing submittals and working with campuses to resolve issues. Indeed, even after our independent review, diligent STARS' staff found a couple other minor technical issues with our submittal. Great. More evidence that oversight and accountability is the key to STARS' maturity.

The STARS Steering Committee is vexed by the conflict between the need for more accountability versus the increase in cost/effort such accountability would bring. They talk about all that they are doing to insure/preserve/restore STARS' credibility. They worry that if the bar is set too high fewer will attempt the leap. A recent blog from the STARS chair** lays out all that is marshaled to enhance accuracy. 

Is that enough?

Truth or truthiness...

If STARS becomes marked by illegitimacy born of questionable claims who will want to be associated with it? We cannot countenance crap, and there is some out there. 

STARS can finesse the cost and workload of a STARS report by further eliminating marginal metrics, allowing opt outs of credits that penalize a campus for following the law and other limitations a campus cannot control, and by jettisoning onerous information requirements in other credits. 

For if STARS gets too many more negative press accounts of its illegitimacy, it's lights out. Can't finesse a way out of irrelevance. If, for instance, the Chronicle publishes an article where John Doe College is found to be greenwashing its STARS sustainability claims, STARS remaining cred could crumble. 

Recently, US News and World Report slammed two schools for fudging their submittals to that magazine's annual ranking. The schools were bruised. US News not. On the contrary, US News looks good because it imposed accountability in a self-reporting system. 

Maybe STARS needs to beef up its data-accuracy system to include publicly rebuking dodgy STARS reports. But that will be difficult for a membership-based organization. US News doesn’t have that limitation.

Either way, STARS must find a credible way to enhance data quality even if cost goes up a little. You get what you pay for. Indeed, low cost won't induce many to use STARS if credibility is off. And if costs increase past players' price points, they can opt for a free STARS Reporter version. 

The time is now to guide campuses into a more credible thus legitimate and sustainable future. All STARS submittals need unjaundiced jurisprudence to evaluate the claims within or we will all suffer.

STARS should embrace an update of Socrates' "unexamined life" quote championed by, of all people, President Ronald Reagan, that he adapted from the Russian parable: “Doveryai, no proveryai.”

"Trust, but verify.”

* In future posts: I will get back to blathering about moving the Big Rocks inside us. I have asked alert readers to send me thoughts on their own inner sustainability battles. It's been interesting reading. Please keep those cards and letters coming.

** Disclosure: The current Chair of the STARS Steering Committee, Julian Dautremont-Smith, is a colleague and friend dating back to before our collaboration with Judy Walton on the genesis of STARS. We remain friends to this day.

*** As always: Apologies to William Shakespeare, M. Scott Peck, Vincent Van Gogh, Stephen Colbert, and Ronald Reagan (and anyone else I have libeled) for shamelessly invoking their name and/or twisting their contributions to the world in service of my shabby ramblings and allegedly noble mission. I offer only this in my defense: name dropping makes me happy...


  1. Tracy Dixon, NC StateOctober 13, 2014 at 6:29 AM

    Dave -
    Interesting. I wonder how many others are thinking 3rd party review. At NC State Univ, we had a similar thought and had a graduate-level Advanced Auditing class perform a review of our Annual Sustainability Report which is where our annual data is publicly reported and there is a overlap with STARS.

    This was a great "living lab" concept that merged student learning with improving campus. The College of Management class was far enough from those that collected the data to be objective.


  2. Hey Tracy

    Good work on the class review project. Sounds like great leverage of STARS' benefits.

    Don't know who all is interested in 3P-reviews. I've had some folks contact me to ask questions. Don't know where that's going.

    I do think STARS could easily and should properly recognize those STARS submittals that have voluntarily had 3P-review with a designation of some sort. Right now STARS offers no incentive for campuses who on their own seek to improve data quality; hence, STARS' brand.

    See you in Portland!


  3. Great Blog Dave. After leaving the AASHE board I seriously considered creating a STARS 3rd party consulting service in our firm. I decided not to because at a subsequent conference the discussion came up in a STARS presentation and the sentiment seemed to be that institutions were against it.
    I also didn't because I was starting a new band and didn't have the time. You can only do so much.
    See ya in Portland.


  4. Dave,

    Eloquent post on the verification/cost dilemma! I am anxious to hear more about your pioneering efforts with third-party verification at Portland.