After five years of receiving a silver rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) for its innovations, Lehigh has reached a new height in its sustainability initiatives.
Lehigh, which submitted its seventh report to AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) Version 2.2 in February, received a gold rating for the first time with a score of 65.79.
STARS is a tracking and rating system specifically designed for higher education to track their sustainability performance. Universities earn points to achieve a bronze, silver, gold or platinum rating by demonstrating efforts in sustainability in areas such as academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership.
Since 2015, Lehigh’s Office of Sustainability has reported Lehigh’s sustainability efforts to AASHE, which empowers higher education faculty, administrators, staff and students to be effective change agents and drivers of sustainability innovation.
As of April 2021, STARS reports were submitted by 674 institutions in 17 countries and 50 U.S. states/territories. To date, approximately 25 percent of participating schools have achieved a gold rating, which symbolizes a high level of institutional sustainability. Overall, Lehigh has the sixth-highest STARS score among private non-profit doctoral-granting institutions with an enrollment of 5,000 to 9,999 students.
“Lehigh University is deeply committed to institutionalizing sustainability throughout the university,” President John D. Simon wrote in a letter that was part of Lehigh’s STARS report. “The teaching, research and service enacted by members of our campus community contribute to a deeper understanding of our environment and of our responsibilities to it. The methods with which we manage our daily operations reflect the integration of just, equitable, and economically and environmentally responsible solutions into our internal practices. Campus-community partnerships foster a culture that supports sustainability efforts both here on South Mountain and beyond.”
Sustainability officer Katharine Targett Gross, said, “Lehigh has been an AASHE STARS Silver institution for five straight years. It was time to push sustainability at Lehigh to the next level and really show what we are capable of. We have a lot of momentum to continue to advance sustainability efforts on campus through Lehigh’s Sustainability Strategic Plan 2030 and through the development of a Climate Action Strategy. We take seriously our responsibility to be a model sustainable campus and contribute to the health of our planet as a whole. We are laser-focused on a vision of an inclusive Lehigh community where sustainability is an integral part of the institutional ethos.”
Each year, Lehigh begins collecting data from relevant departments and offices for the STARS report in June/July. Beginning in September, the data is reviewed by the Office of Sustainability and necessary edits are made. In January, the entire report is reviewed by select members of the Lehigh Sustainability Council for accuracy and compliance with AASHE requirements. In February, the report is presented to Lehigh senior leadership and approved by the University President before official submission to STARS. After this submission, any necessary edits or updates requested by AASHE are made in March with a final completion goal of April.
In 2015, when the first report was published, Lehigh received a bronze rating with a score of 36.75. Since then, the overall score trend shows that sustainability has become increasingly part of Lehigh culture and operations.
Lehigh excels in many areas of the report and performs better than most reporting peer institutions in the majority of metrics. Compared to other institutions, Lehigh shines the most in the “operations” category, which reflects the university’s efforts that contribute to sustainability in buildings, food and dining, grounds maintenance, purchasing and transportation. Lehigh also excels in the innovation and leadership category, as it earned full points for several years in a row. That category recognizes institutions that are seeking innovative solutions to sustainability challenges and demonstrating sustainability leadership in ways that are not otherwise captured in STARS.
While the gold rating is a major accomplishment for sustainability at Lehigh, the work is far from over. With the adoption of Lehigh’s Sustainability Strategic Plan 2030, released in October 2020, there is a well-defined path for Lehigh to achieve a platinum certification in the coming years.
More information on Lehigh’s 2021 Gold STARS report can be found here.
Story by Audrey McSain