by Micah Wilkins, Editor
The Sierra Club ranked Warren Wilson College at number 19 on the organization’s “Coolest Schools” list for 2012, dropping from our 2011 position at number 4. The “coolest schools,” according to the Sierra Club, are colleges and universities in the United States that prioritize environmentalism and sustainability, not only in their policies but in their practices—from the classroom to the dorm room.
Warren Wilson has ranked in the top 20 since the “Coolest Schools” list began in 2007. Six years ago, however, sustainability was not as much of a priority for most institutions.
According to Stan Cross, Education Director of the Environmental Leadership Center, more and more colleges and universities are adopting and implementing sustainable practices.
“Sustainability in higher education has become a movement,” Cross said.
John Brock, Interim Director of the ELC, claims that it is mostly large public schools who have begun to jump on the sustainability bandwagon.
“A lot of the big colleges and universities have finally adopted sustainability, and I’m really glad for that,” Brock said. “That’s really hopeful. It means that progress is not only happening on our campus but across the country.”
Warren Wilson has long been “one of the pioneering schools” when it comes to sustainability said Cross.
“When it came to actually doing things, we had the most shit to talk about,” Cross said.
In 2007, in addition to being ranked number 3 on the Sierra Club’s “Coolest Schools” list, Warren Wilson was named the number 1 sustainable college for under 1,000 students by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Once the sustainability movement reached other colleges and universities, however, our missions of sustainability and environmentalism were no longer unique to Warren Wilson. According to the Sierra Club’s website, “a transition is brewing among college administrators, who are retrofitting energy-guzzling buildings, putting composting programs into place, seeding campus farms, funding clean-tech research labs, shuttering coal-fired power plants, and mandating curricula that guarantee environmental literacy.”
This has been a swift transformation among institutions across the country, according to Cross.
“In 2007, we had no competition,” Cross said. “In 2009, we started to have competition.”
In the Sierra Club’s first list of rankings six years ago, our peers in sustainability included other private liberal arts colleges like Oberlin College, Berea College and Middlebury College. Today, Warren Wilson is only one of two small, private institutions in the ranking’s top 20.
Both Cross and Brock agree that larger, public institutions have more funding available to them, so that they can easily propose and implement policies of sustainability.
“Our first priority is to be an educational institution,” Brock said. “Money won’t just appear. We have to figure out how to do it without raising tuition or without borrowing money.”
Funding is important, but according to Cross, Wilson is lead by a strong passion for and commitment to sustainability unlike other institutions.
“Money will get you somewhere, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a real opportunity here to engage in real substantive change that solves problems,” Cross said.
Last year, Warren Wilson ranked number 4 on the “Coolest Schools” list because of all of the innovation that was happening, according to Cross. With interdisciplinary team-taught courses concerning sustainability, an award-winning on-campus recycling program, a completed sustainable food policy, and more, 2011 was a “culmination of innovation” Cross said.
However, Wilson has spent this past year in a leadership transition which put a hold on any new innovations.
“Everyone was waiting for new leadership to tell us what direction to go in,” Cross said.
This year, with a new president, and a fresh perspective, Cross is confident that more work will get done. This summer President Steve Solnick signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a promise to address climate change on college campuses. In 2007 there were 284 presidents of colleges and universities that had signed onto the ACUPCC. Today there are 677. “That’s one indicator of this movement,” Cross said.
“From my perspective, I never like to see the college fall in ranking, especially in an issue I care passionately about,” Cross said. “Other institutions have more money and that’s their strength. Some have more people and that’s their strength. Through the triad we’ve got so many opportunities for innovation, to take sustainability to the next level.”