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Environmental Studies student assesses OHIO's sustainability

Working with the Office of Sustainability, Tess Phiney helped prepare OHIO's STARS report

Madison Koenig
April 25, 2015

During her two years at Ohio University, Tess Phinney has devoted herself to university sustainability. Much of that hard work paid off last month when she and the Office of Sustainability received a "Silver" rating on the Sustainability, Track, Assessment and Rating Systems (STARS) Report.

Phinney, a second-year environmental studies student in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, works as the Office of Sustainability's graduate assistant for reporting and has spent the last year working with other members of the office on this report.

The STARS report gauges sustainability practices at Ohio University, looking at how sustainability is incorporated into four main factors: academic, engagement, operations, and planning and administration. Phinney researched on academic and engagement factors. To look at sustainability in the classroom, she went through the course offerings catalogue searching for keywords.

“I looked through literally every different course offering and tried to find courses that are related to sustainability and courses that are focused on sustainability,” she said.

Although Phinney worried that she may have missed some relevant classes because their course descriptions didn’t include language about sustainability, she found strong results: 64 undergraduate and 11 graduate courses that include sustainability, and 13 undergraduate and 8 graduate courses that specifically focus on the issue.

For engagement, Phinney looked at campus life and public life. She and Annie Laurie Cadmus, the University’s director of sustainability, collaborated with offices across campus to see how sustainability was incorporated into orientations for faculty, staff, and students, as well as how student organizations like the EcoReps, College Green Magazine, and the Sierra Student Coalition spread sustainable messages and practices throughout campus.

The public aspect of engagement examines “how the institution interacts with the community around us,” Phinney said. As a member of the City of Athens Environment and Sustainability Commission, she was able to build relationships with other people in Athens who were concerned about this issue, which helped her measure Ohio University’s success in building community partnerships, collaborating with community stakeholders, and participating in public policy, among other factors.

The STARS report offers one of the best assessments of Ohio University’s sustainability efforts, highlighting the University’s strengths and opportunities for improvement. Phinney is proud of the Silver rating the report received from the Association of Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the group that built the report.

“It’s a competitive score among our peers, and we only see us improving from here,” said Phinney. She said Ohio University could look to Oregon State University and the University of New Hampshire, both of which have gold STARS ratings, to find ideas to improve its standing.

Originally from Columbus, Phinney received her bachelor’s degree in environmental and natural resource management from Clemson University in South Carolina. Her father is an Ohio University alumnus, and when she was looking to continue her education, he encouraged her to check out his alma mater.

“I was considering grad school, and I was like, ‘Maybe Dad does know something,’” Phinney said.

One of the reasons she chose to join the Voinovich School was the composting facility at the Ridges, which is the largest in-vessel composting system at any school in the country.

“The composting facility is probably my favorite thing about this school,” she said.

As a student in the environmental studies program, Phinney has been able to connect her work in the Office of Sustainability with her thesis research, which compares sustainability practices at universities. She is currently enrolled in the SOUL (Sustainable Ohio University Leaders) Graduate Practicum, a course that explores sustainability practices and implementation at Ohio University and around the country.

When practitioners from other universities visited Athens for a summit hosted by the Office of Sustainability, Phinney had the chance to interview five practitioners from schools in Ohio about their sustainability plans.

“It was interesting to see the depth and breadth of what’s out there, and to get different perspectives on the state of sustainability and what behavior change means at different institutions,” she said.

Phinney, who hopes to become a sustainability practitioner at a university after receiving her degree, said that working at the Office of Sustainability helped her understand the context for her thesis research.

“It all worked out that I was able to get my data for my thesis from something that the Office of Sustainability sponsored,” she said. “The work I’ve done in this office has given me the tools I needed to critically analyze sustainability plans and know what these sustainability practitioners were talking about.”