Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, named the top 10 schools in the U.S. for environmental stewardship, and two Washington schools made the grade: Evergreen State College, at No. 5, and the University of Washington at Seattle, which, at No. 9, barely beat Tufts University to make it into the top 10.
The editors note a dramatic shift in favor of large public universities on the list this year; last year's tally counted only two, the private colleges easily dominating. It's not clear whether the shift points to an equally dramatic surge in environmentalism at public institutions over the past year or simply to the methods of those seeking to rank them. The editors admit their ranking system, developed after "weeks of reporting and analysis," is imperfect. They assigned points to schools according to their performance in 10 categories:
policies for building, energy, food, investment, procurement, and transportation; curriculum; environmental activism; waste management; and overall commitment to sustainability.
Last year, the first year that Sierra offered this roundup, nary a Washington school made the list. The two public institutions named were Penn State and the University of California system. The California system was not included this year; the editors felt its inclusion was unfair since it is "neither wholly independent nor entirely unified." It's included in a separate category for "Shining Stars."
However unscientific their means, the ranking serves as an interesting barometer for how environmental practices come into the mainstream, and how student activism on campus influences policy. Oberlin and Tufts, meccas for the politically active student, easily made the list two years in a row. Evergreen State College rose to the top 10 this year in part because of its activism, measured by the nine campus organizations that focus on environmentalism and social justice. The University of Washington, however, was dinged for its lack of student activism, which, say the editors, "remains a fringe activity."
Perhaps that's because even in liberal la-la land, student activism gets a bad rap these days. Check out this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Reporter Amy Rolph makes fun of a group of 15 students who show up at UW President Mark Emmert's office to protest the school's contract with Nike:
The president was out. But one of his assistants was kind enough to make an appointment for the 15 students: Would Wednesday at 3 p.m. work?
They said it would, and with banners rustling, they made their way back down three floors of stairs — but not before noticing that the tea bags in Emmert's office weren't fair trade.
In one of the story's 72 "Sound Off" comments, a reader rightly questions, "Has the PI started syndicating from The Onion?" Others are not so polite to the protesters. While the Nike contract, however rightly or wrongly, raised the students' ire, student activism itself seems to be raising readers' ire. KMW writes:
Get a life. Go to a party. Have fun. Don't burn down the building. Don't pretend like you really care. We have enough liberal radicals in Seattle. Are they building a resume for a government job? Mayor Greg and Governor Chrissy will hire them.
Another asks, "So do these UW students go to college to get more stupid?"
Backlash against student activism is nothing new. In the early 1990s, my fellow students ripped down our recycling notices. Recycling is positively mainstream now, but back then, and at a conservative Midwestern university, it was a radical notion. Other commenters on the P-I story argue that the students are wasting their time, that they should be putting their energy to better use writing business plans for factories that would compete with Nike: "Of course, writing a proposal like that sounds like a lot of work, and could possibly involve math, and maybe even typing, and making a pie chart on the computer," says JustRoss.
What these readers don't realize is that activism can provide one of the best educational opportunities out there. As a student activist, I wrote a campus-wide recycling proposal — recycling was adopted there before I graduated — and staffed a landlord-tenant hotline, an experience that proved its real world application when my absentee landlord refused to fix a broken sewage pipe. At the tender age of 19, I managed a 30-member canvass staff, which required me to recruit, train, and develop employees. I served on governmental boards where I learned how to participate in grown-up discussions about complex issues, such as corporate auto fuel efficiency standards and pollution penalties. I learned how to give public speeches, how to conduct myself on the phone, and most importantly, which battles are the right ones to fight. Maybe the UW students are still learning this one, but they deserve our respect all the same.