College Wins Multiple Environmental Accolades

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

This winter, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools named Oberlin College the “Best 4-Year Higher Education Institution” in their second annual awards. The Center cited Oberlin’s installation of the largest solar array of any four-year liberal arts college, its collaboration with the city of Oberlin to become a climate-positive community, as well as student-driven initiatives such as the Big Swap, the Responsible Investment Organization and the Recycled Products Co-op.

“Something that I’m particularly impressed with at Oberlin is the creative initiative of students to create really exciting resource conservation projects like the Fresh Swap and the Free Store,” said Amanda Jacir, a senior Environmental Studies major and member of the Resource Conservation Team.

Oberlin was also recently acknowledged by Second Nature, a national nonprofit organization aimed at promoting a sustainable society. Second Nature named Oberlin a finalist in the 2013 Climate Leadership Awards, which is a competition between signatories of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Oberlin College, Carleton College, The Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Middlebury College are the four Baccalaureate finalists. The public will be able to vote on the top school in April through an online ballot, and in late spring the Second Nature Board will choose a winner.

Oberlin is no stranger to environmental accolades and often ranks highly on Sierra Club’s top 100 “Cool Schools”. Cindy Frantz, associate professor of Psychology and co-chair of the Oberlin Project’s Energy Planning Committee, thinks this type of recognition can be an important motivator. “Having the external validation is really … critical to encouraging us to press on, and then the more you do that the more likely you are to get validated in the future,” she said.

While he is excited about Oberlin being named the Best Four-Year Higher Education Institution, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology John Petersen considers the criteria for these sorts of awards and rankings to often be “idiosyncratic [in] nature.”

“The commitment and hard work of students, faculty and the administration at Oberlin certainly shifts over time, but from my perspective the ranking of schools in these lists tends to change much more rapidly than anything within the schools themselves,” Petersen said in an e-mail to the Review. “If this is about sharing and highlighting recognition for the creative approaches that different institutions are taking, then I’m all for it. Recognition for environmental leadership should be granted for some combination of hard work and tangible outcomes. We have lots to be proud of here at Oberlin on both fronts.”

John Bergen, a sophomore Religion and Environmental Studies major who works for the Oberlin Project and the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, feels that the factors taken into consideration for environmental awards can be problematic. “Sometimes members of the administration want to focus on these sort of Sierra Club-type awards which tend to privilege resource conservation … as the main ways [to be environmentally conscious] and maybe don’t see as clearly the way in which financial aid is an environmental justice issue,” Bergen said.

Later, in an e-mail to the Review, Bergen emphasized his belief in the importance of financial aid as part of environmental justice efforts.

“It’s not that these other [resource conservation-based] projects aren’t good … but that giving someone from a low-income background the chance to get an education from a place like Oberlin allows them to be a more effective leader for justice. … We as student activists have been demanding that the College invest a lot of resources in a Central Heating Plant that doesn’t use large amounts of fossil fuels like developing a lot of the campus with ground-source heat pumps. We can have a debate on whether [funds can be raised for this] project, but from the point of view of the Trustees, if that’s the direction we want to head in, then that’s going to involve cuts to other things such as Financial Aid. As someone, like a lot of students here, who couldn’t attend without the financial aid I receive, there is only one answer to this — the College’s commitment to providing an affordable education takes priority. If it comes down to a choice between financial aid and sustainable heat production, I choose to support Financial Aid every time.”

Awards criteria aside, Oberlin’s recent environmental recognitions are seen by many students and faculty as not the only reason to continue working towards sustainability. Sophomore Environmental Studies major and Oberlin Anti-Frack organizer Rachel Berkrot said, “Even though we are winning all these awards, it’s still important to keep being as progressive as possible. There’s still so much that can be done in terms of environmentalism on this campus.”