UHD’s Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability (CUAS) recently earned UHD a Bronze rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability and Higher Education (AASHE) through its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating SystemTM (STARS). STARS is a framework for understanding, comparing, and improving sustainability across higher education.
Juan Martinez (left), Sustainability Coordinator for CUAS, led the University’s application effort.
According to Martinez, the exhaustive review process began early in 2020 with a request-for-proposal-type document that included questions about sustainability efforts across broad categories, including academics, research engagements, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. Subcategories under each area drilled down to specific efforts the University was making in that area; for example, the academics category included curriculum and research plus academic courses, learning outcomes, and undergraduate programs.
Martinez provided documentation and justification as to how UHD was meeting the defined areas through its classes, programs, and services. “The process required working with faculty and staff in departments all across the University to uncover everything UHD is doing, which is significant. It takes a lot of emails, a lot of talking with people, a lot of working together—it was a team effort,” said Martinez.
Earning a gold, silver, or bronze designation enables the University to promote its sustainable practices—a valuable recruiting and retention tool for students and faculty, said Martinez. “Students care about sustainability more than ever. They ask questions about what the University is doing in this arena, so this designation is a way for us to compete and attract students to the campus, and to engage students who are already here to help us do better. The same is true of faculty—we were surprised by how many of our faculty were excited to see us making sustainability a priority.”
He noted the STARS process goes beyond just a focus on environment issues. “This process enables us to gauge where we stand in terms of the broader view of sustainability, such as our efforts toward social and economic equity and justice, in addition to environmental factors,” said Martinez. “And all those components matter to current and prospective students and faculty. The Bronze designation shows them not just where we are, but says, look how far we can go, what a difference we can make, if you join us.”
While sustainability is often considered a topic for the natural sciences area, Martinez disagrees. “Sustainability crosses all disciplines. We had a student worker during the STARS process, Chris Kemp (’22), who was vital to the project, keeping us on track and organized in a complex Excel matrix. He wasn’t a science major, he was a Philosophy major, but he cared deeply about sustainability, and even singlehandedly organized Earth Day in Spring 2022,” said Martinez, who believes Kemp’s attitude is a sign of the times. “Our Center wants everyone to understand that your field doesn’t matter—business, computer science, communications—all areas are needed to work on sustainability projects. You don’t have to be majoring in biology, chemistry, or engineering. We need diverse perspectives and experience to make real progress.”
The STARS designation is valid for three years, and Martinez plans to apply again to achieve an even higher score. The initial AASHE report took a year and a half to complete, and it was a learning process, said Martinez. “For example, we scored well in the area of affordability and diversity, a 4.8 out of 10. But now that we understand how the STARS process actually works, we know we can score even better because UHD has such a tremendous focus on diversity, we can include many more of our programs and services. And of course, UHD is very affordable.”
As sustainability continues to spread throughout industries—including oil and gas—Martinez sees incredible opportunities for UHD students, and invites all campus members to join CUAS projects and initiatives. “I hope the STARS rating will promote the idea that everyone has a role to play in sustainability. It’s up to each individual to find that role and implement it within your personal life, your community, your career,” said Martinez. “But if you’re looking for a place to start, come join us at one of our events or come help with our Sustainability Gardens. There’s plenty to do, just reach out—we welcome everyone!”
About AASHE STARS Designation
AASHE STARS is intended to engage all higher education institutions, from community colleges to research universities, encompassing long-term sustainability goals for already high-achieving institutions as well as entry for institutions beginning a sustainability effort. The system provides a way to meaningfully compare institutions using a common set of measurements developed by the international campus sustainability community; creates incentives for ongoing improvements; facilitates information sharing; and builds a stronger, more diverse sustainability community. To learn more, visit STARS.AASHE.org.