SOU takes sustainability to another level

In an effort to further polish its reputation as a hub of green and sustainable thinking and practices, Southern Oregon University has joined a more demanding program called STARS — Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

The move centralizes sustainability ratings efforts under one program, a private, nonprofit administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

The Oregon University System is urging the change and the state's three largest public universities have already joined, said Larry Blake, SOU campus planning and sustainability officer.

Although SOU has already won kudos and ratings in the field — and greatly reduced energy consumption — "we've done it piecemeal and this will take us to a much higher level than we are now," said Blake.

"Their requirements are far-reaching and ambitious. They will ask us to rate ourselves pro-actively on measurements we're not doing yet." SOU in past years blazed trails in energy rollbacks, purchasing renewable energy certificates via a student-passed initiative — and by purchasing carbon offsets for 100 percent of electrical and natural gas consumption.

"We already rank pretty high nationally for institutional participation," he said, "with the EPA Green Power Challenge."

"We're very excited to be part of the STARS program," said SOU President Mary Cullinan. "We've made great strides already, particularly with our LEED-Platinum Higher Education Center in Medford, our emphasis on undergraduate research in environmental studies, and a host of initiatives on our Ashland campus. We're committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2050."

In the near term, SOU plans to further reduce university-sponsored air travel and to work with Recology Ashland Sanitary Service to weigh solid waste and quantify how much is being recycled, said Blake, all with the goal of shrinking greenhouse gas emissions.

"STARS is cutting edge and is asking us to measure programs we haven't even considered yet," said Blake. "Instead of being familiar with sustainability practices, we'll be getting more advanced and going to a higher level."

STARS isn't just about conservation and energy reduction but also gets into academic offerings, said Blake, "as it tries to shape the behavior of students and staff," rating courses based on whether they are "sustainability related" or entirely about sustainability.

"We have a good list of sustainability-related courses in our present catalog, but not a large number of sustainability courses."

The payoff for participating in STARS, Blake noted, will come not just from helping the environment but to make a "strategic decision" to enhance SOU's position as a regional leader, able to develop more student interest in Environmental Studies.

Using the STARS guidelines, Blake has created a four-page, task-setting technical manual to "start ramping up" in various areas, such as water, waste, transportation, and, he said, he will be creating subcommittees of the Campus Sustainability Council to work on them.

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