Evaluating sustainability on campus through STARS

Since 2011, Williams College has participated in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a third party framework for higher education institutions to measure their sustainability performance. Colleges and universities conduct internal research and report in a wide range of categories: Academics, Engagement, Operations, Planning & Administration, and Innovation & Leadership.

Reports are compiled and some colleges, like Williams, choose to send their report off to other colleges participating in STARS for a peer-review process, before the report is submitted via the STARS submission portal. Reports can be submitted year round, and are valid for three years. Submitting by early March ensures the additional benefit of being included in The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges

STARS’ parent organization, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), reviews each report and awards a rating from Bronze to Platinum (a submitter may also choose not to be rated). For the first three reports over the last 11 years, the College has received a rating of Silver, each time with an improved score, a trend we hope to continue with this year’s submission. So what is the point of all of the reporting, reviewing, and rating? Why does the College participate in STARS?

First and foremost, participating in STARS holds the College accountable in their sustainability goals as outlined in the College’s Strategic Plan. The College’s past reports show our progress (or lack thereof) in areas such as waste production, integration of sustainability themes in course offerings, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and ethical and plant based food sourcing. Comparing newer STARS reports with past reports is one way to determine whether or not the College is meeting goals in these areas and more.

I, however, think that most of the practical implications of STARS are derived from researching and diving deeply into each of the different credit categories. From a detailed accounting of our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to capturing the share of local foods in our dining menus, researching college sustainability practices within each specific category allows us to track our progress, identify areas for further growth, and facilitate new initiatives and policies to more fully embed sustainability across all of our operations and campus culture. 

For example, I was responsible for preparing an inventory of sustainability-relevant courses and research. While combing through the 2021-22 Course Catalog, I was also able to identify courses that could reasonably incorporate aspects of sustainability and learned more about how sustainability connects to a broad range of research and pedagogy in virtually all departments and disciplines. 

Some campus initiatives you might know of have been implemented as a direct result of STARS findings. For example, the 68 Center for Career Exploration has partnered with the Zilkha Center to create a sustainability pledge for graduating seniors to sign and commit to pursuing sustainability in their future careers, a component of the Engagement section of STARS. Additionally, our recent transportation survey helped us collect information for STARS, but will also help us improve our greenhouse gas emissions reporting and shed light on areas where we can support more sustainable transportation and mobility choices.

And obviously, the end product of the whole process, the rating, allows the College to compare its progress in sustainability to other colleges. The Princeton Review ranks schools based on STARS ratings in their annually published Top 50 Green Colleges list (note that as of March 2022, Williams College has not made the list), which prospective students read. Also, STARS ratings encourage friendly competition between colleges, and the peer review process prompts colleges to share not only research methodologies, but sustainability initiatives that have made significant impacts on their respective campuses.

Overall, participating in STARS allows the College to attain official recognition for its sustainability efforts and to connect and learn with other institutions, as well as providing an additional incentive for implementing additional sustainability initiatives. For prospective and current students, as well as faculty and staff, STARS is a means for holding the College accountable on their sustainability pledges. It has been a great experience to contribute to this year’s report and to become acquainted with STARS and the many people who worked to complete it. Here’s to Gold!

– Brodie Leo, ’25, Zilkha Center STARS Intern