Temple earns first Gold Award for campus sustainability

After earning the Silver Award from STARS twice in the past five years, the university has improved across various categories to qualify for the Gold sustainability classification.

Temple sustainability rating has qualified for a Gold award from STARS. | TRAE BYRD / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple received its first Gold Award in the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education last month for the university’s innovations, campus engagement and research in sustainable practices. 

The university scored 66.57 out of 100 points, higher than half of other participating universities. Drexel University scored 45.1 of 100 points and the University of Pennsylvania scored similarly to Temple at 66.65 points in their most recent STARS reports.

“It feels like a real milestone in the life of the office,” said Caroline Burkholder, senior sustainability manager for the Office of Sustainability. “The office has been around since 2008 and this is the first time that we’ve reached this level.” 

STARS is an AASHE guideline meant to inspire university sustainability. Schools can gain bronze, silver, gold or platinum recognition, which are valid for three years. Temple received AASHE’s Bronze Award in 2015 and Silver Award in 2019 and 2021.

Universities submit their sustainability practices to be considered across various categories for scoring. Temple scored well in innovation & leadership, engagement and academics, but underperformed in operations and planning & administration.

The Office of Sustainability’s Climate Cafes, a safe space for students to discuss environmental anxiety, contributed to Temple’s high score in innovation & leadership. The cafes are part of the office’s Peer Facilitated Environmental Wellness Programming, and wellness is a facet of sustainability in the report. 

“When we think about sustainability, we should really be thinking about it in the most holistic way and that’s something that we were really able to deliver this time,” Burkholder said. 

Temple’s Ambler Campus and Arboretum also contributed to a high innovation score because it is a part of the Campus Nature Rx Network, a network of schools supporting campus well-being through nature, which celebrates women in horticulture and helps students with clinical therapy training and research.

The office engages students in sustainable practices outside of the classroom as well. Initiatives like the Campus Race to Zero Waste program, which calls on student volunteers to compost food waste, helped the office perform well in the engagement category and achieve a perfect score in the subsection outreach campaigns. 

Temple also scored perfectly in the “campus as a living laboratory” subsection of the academics category. The university combines academics with wellness by using the campus as an outdoor classroom in courses like Sustainable Cities, in which students execute walk audits to better understand pedestrian safety. 

However, Temple underperformed in the curriculum subsection of academics, scoring 24.19 points out of 40. 

Student and faculty advocates have told the Office of Sustainability that a more sustainability-focused curriculum is needed across multiple colleges, Burkholder said.

While there are 1,173 sustainability-focused or sustainability-inclusive courses offered, not all majors offer sustainability classes. The number of sustainability-inclusive courses offered in the 2022-23 academic year has declined by 60 courses since the 2016-17 academic year. 

“In the future, we’re going to be much more in tune with not just the total offerings but making sure that each college is taking on these sustainability challenges and really incorporating it into the DNA of the degree,” Burkholder said. 

The Office of Sustainability is developing more sustainable-focused initiatives on account of the underperforming scores, especially within the operations category, which focuses on infrastructure and expenditure on transportation and buildings. 

“[There are] ways in which the materials that we are familiar with as landscape architects and horticulturists can be used by design to create places that are comfortable and inviting and engaging [and] allow for people to not only engage with the environment, whether it’s in a city or at our suburban Ambler campus, but also for people to engage with one another in these spaces, too,” said Kate Benisek, a landscape architecture and horticulture professor. 

Benisek hopes that in the future, the university can mitigate the impact of its carbon emissions  and utilize renewable resources, a contributing factor to the energy category which scored 3.88 out of 10 points on the STARS report. 

Burkholder plans on tackling this area with the next generation of the office’s Climate Action Plan. 

“We’re reaching out to our different subject matter experts to develop reasonable and ambitious goals for that transition, especially when it comes to energy,” Burkholder said. “We’re also looking at an emissions reduction plan that really gets into the nitty-gritty of what the energy purchasing is, what kind of infrastructure we need to build on campus to facilitate that transition to cleaner energy and to renewables.”  

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