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As a high school senior in Huntsville, Alabama, Carol Dollard went to her guidance counselor’s office to thumb through a phone book-like tome listing colleges and universities.
“There were no search engines; I came here as a student in 1978 because there were only two institutions in the country — that I could find — that taught what we called solar engineering,” said Dollard, a utility engineer for Colorado State University’s facilities management team. “We’ve been leading in a lot of this environmental area since long before we called it sustainability.”
Some 40 years later, Fran Letts made the same college choice: “I thought Colorado was beautiful and wanted to study environmental stuff,” said Letts, a senior majoring in human dimensions of natural resources. “It was kind of a no-brainer to come to CSU.”
The continuity of action and reputation has led CSU to again be named the top overall performer among doctoral institutions in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s 2021 Sustainable Campus Index. It is CSU’s second consecutive year earning the highest ranking and fourth time in seven years.
“It is an incredible honor for us to be recognized by AASHE as the overall top performer among doctoral institutions for the second year in a row,” CSU Provost and Executive Vice President Mary Pedersen said. “The work of our faculty, staff and students has a broad impact in helping to solve the greatest environmental challenges of our time, and that work is creating a more just and equitable existence for communities around the globe.
“Sustainability is woven into the fabric of our institution, and we will continue to work hard to set rigorous standards for our academics, research and engagement.”
‘A common goal’
Letts, who will graduate in December, has been a residence hall Eco Leader and a peer mentor, worked with the Environmental Learning Center for two years and been the president of the Zero Waste Team for three years.
“As a student, there’s a lot of opportunity to get involved even if you’re not in an environmental major; you can still be heavily involved in some type of environmental organization or program,” Letts said. “And there’s campus connections with people that are like-minded because, as much as we are about sustainability, there are 30,000 people on our campus. It is kind of like a common goal among everybody.”
Dollard graduated from CSU in 1983 with a mechanical engineering degree with an emphasis in solar energy, got a master’s degree in 1990 and returned to CSU as an employee in 1999.
In her nearly 23 years back at CSU, Dollard has seen social justice courses added to the curriculum, continued research by countless faculty and dozens of sustainability projects completed on CSU’s campuses.
AASHE’s rankings also placed CSU in the top six in five individual categories: Campus engagement; curriculum; public engagement; research; and well-being and work.
CSU has never scored lower than fourth (2018-2019) and was second in 2017 among doctoral institutions. Dollard pointed out that the differences among the top performers, including Stanford, New Hampshire, California-Irvine, California-Berkeley, Arizona State, Cornell and Connecticut, are often fractions apart. “We are in a platinum family, and it’s very elite company,” Dollard said.
CSU polymer chemist Eugene Chen, whose award-winning research includes creating waste-free sustainable resources that compete with conventional petroleum plastics, said there is always room for improvement.
“While preserving and further promoting our strength in areas such as curriculum, research, engagement, et cetera, we will need to learn from our peers in the areas that outperform us and make immediate investments to improve those areas,” said Chen, who was named a University Distinguished Professor in 2020.
AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) made CSU the world’s first institution to reach platinum status three times. The STARS rating is a significant component of the Princeton Review’s Top 20 Cool Schools, of which CSU has been a member for eight years in a row.
“We were proud when we were doing one or two things like a strong recycling program or hey, we’ve got solar panels on the Foothills Campus,” Dollard said. “But I think what STARS really showed us was that we have a very broad spectrum of sustainability at CSU. Everything from social justice to environmental policy to how many solar panels we have.”
Taking more action
Dollard said CSU is working on its Climate Action Plan and has moved up its date of climate neutrality from 2050 to 2040. She said that CSU is working toward 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
Dollard also highlighted the geothermal exchange heating and cooling project at the Moby Arena complex and 20 new solar projects, including a solar canopy being added to a parking lot near Westfall Hall.
“Sustainability is top of mind for a lot of our students,” Dollard said. “We get success, which makes students recognize us, and they come and then they’re saying, ‘Well yeah, but we want you to do more.’ It’s a feedback loop in a positive way.”
Letts agreed. “We’ve done all the really easy stuff,” she said. “There’s still so much more that we can be doing.”