A Management Tool to Improve Educational Performance in Higher Education

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 2 : May 2001  [Research]

By Thomas Balf and Ralph Stuart

Higher education is at a crossroads with regard to its environmental performance. On the regulatory front, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting significant compliance pressure on colleges and universities. At the same time, interest is rapidly increasing in many quarters in developing environmentally sustainable communities, and higher education is seen as a potentially important leader in this movement. Sustainability advocates look to higher education both as a test bed for many of their ideas and as the social institution most likely to incorporate their values in its activities. These considerations have resulted in a “campus greening” movement which seeks to use higher education campuses to investigate the potential of green building initiatives, enhanced recycling programs, energy conservation technologies, as well as the integration of sustainability considerations into the fabric of community experience.

We believe that the confluence of these trends provides special opportunities for creative thinking. As higher education works to find the resources necessary to improve their compliance management systems to meet governmental expectations, there is a unique opportunity to leverage these resources and compliance efforts to go “beyond compliance” and achieve superior environmental performance. We define superior environmental performance inclusively to include the areas of regulatory compliance, campus greening (i.e. minimization of environmental impacts), and educating for sustainability. However, we recognize that this creative thinking must occur in the highly decentralized and complex institutional setting that characterizes American academia. We believe that unless the creativity of those working towards improving environmental performance in higher education is framed in the context of management tools, these ideas will lose their power to create long-term change.

In this article, we describe some of the practical lessons we have learned about Environmental Management Systems (EMS) thinking and how we might use it to help achieve this potential. These lessons have developed through the work of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence (C2E2). Originally organized around regulatory compliance concerns, the C2E2 has broadened its interests to include activities that support the continued improvement of environmental performance in the broadest sense in higher education. The Consortium’s goals are primarily achieved through environmental professional networking, information exchange, and the development of professional resources and tools and testing of innovative regulatory models. One of these resources is the EMS Self-Assessment Checklist for Colleges and Universities. This Checklist will be used as the framework for our discussion.

Unlocking the Potential

Through our work at the C2E2 (see www.c2e2.org for a list of members), we know that there is little linkage between the three component pieces of superior environmental performance: regulatory compliance, campus greening and educating for sustainability. Yet, we also know that the components for such excellence often exist. They exist in the form of underlying values. They exist in the form of the expertise of faculty and professional staff. They exist within specific programs, policies and procedures. Missing is a common tool that allows the variety of people interested in the issue to unlock the many doors in higher education that affect environmental performance. Our experience suggests that the generally agreed upon elements of an effective EMS, loosely modeled on the ISO 14001 standard, can be one such key.

A system is anything that takes its strength and form from the ongoing interaction of its parts. In other words, we believe every college and university has a system for managing its environmental compliance and impacts at some level. However, the problem at small and large institutions alike is that most institutions have many disparate systems that affect the environment. These systems need to work together to be effective, but they often do not.

An effective environmental management system (one that is designed to manage all environmental issues – not just compliance) proceeds according to the following three principles, which are illustrated in Figures 1, 2 and 3.

1. An effective management system has an underlying form that contains the essential elements of a “Plan, Do, Check, Act” loop, which creates a cycle of continual improvement. (Figure 1)

2. The elements of an effective management system connect in a pyramidal fashion, so that an explicit policy sets a clear institutional goal, and information and guidance needed to support the achievement of that policy are explicitly described. (Figure 2)

3. Consistent use of this management system form and function allows for more effective integration of systems within departments, between decentralized schools or campus-wide as illustrated in the EMS “Bucky Ball.” (Figure 3)

This model has informed the activities of the C2E2, including the development of Environmental Management Plans for managing laboratory wastes within the context of an EPA Project XL1 and an EMS Self-Assessment Checklist designed for use by any institution of higher learning.

A Tool That Helps: The C2E2 EMS Self-Assessment Checklist

In September 2000, the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence released version 1.0 of its Environmental Management System Self-Assessment Checklist for Colleges and Universities. The document was developed by college and university EH&S professionals to help them assess the management strength of their compliance programs. However, we believe that it is equally informative when applied to other environmental programs in higher education. The entire document is downloadable from our web site at www.c2e2.org.

The checklist was developed primarily for use by college or university Environmental, Health and Safety professionals to improve their understanding of the elements of an EMS. However, we have found that the process of conducting this rapid “gap analysis” is of significant value in raising awareness of the management challenges associated with other environmental issues. Because the tools permit the recognition of effective programs campus-wide, it is effective in unlocking a variety of improvement opportunities.

Most campuses have many compliance practices in place, as well as other programs that work to minimize environmental impacts. In designing the checklist, we assumed that help is needed in organizing and integrating such programs for review by upper administration and regulators. By examining how closely existing practices correspond to the standard elements of an EMS, the strengths and weaknesses of the program can be discerned.

How It Works

In all, there are 33 questions in the Checklist which are broken down in the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle as follows:

Policy – 7 questions
Planning – 4 questions
Implementation – 14 questions
Checking and corrective action – 7 questions
Management review – 1 question

The assessment takes a few hours to complete. Each question corresponds to a key element of an effective EMS. To facilitate answering the questions, there is a table beneath each question with four columns of examples. The column scores (0 -3) generally obeys the following pattern:

0 (no process in place);
1 (a process exists but because it is unwritten or limited in scope, it is not fully adequate or effective);
2 (the process generally works well or a procedure has been articulated, but it is not comprehensive or integrated); or
3 (appropriately comprehensive and integrated procedure exists).

In other words, a score of 3 represents an ideal end point. An example of the scoring for a Planning Section question is illustrated in Table 1 on the next page.

Lessons Learned

More than 750 copies of the Self-Assessment have been distributed at conferences, workshops, and downloaded from the web. In our conversation with colleges and universities, we have found that many mid to larger institutions are using this or a similar EMS “Gap Analysis” tool to evaluate their program management. The feedback about the utility of the tool has been largely favorable, although feedback has also pointed to the need for a variety tools for going beyond the assessment phase and designing and implementing better EMSs at colleges and universities based on best practices. The following points represent some of the primary lessons learned.

  • Most campus-wide “total” scores fall somewhere in the range of 35 – 65. Because the sections contain different numbers of questions, a strength or weakness in a particular section may skew the overall score. Some users have normalized the scores across sections to overcome this problem.
  • The lowest scores are typically found at institutions without an environmental policy. Institutions often gain a majority of their points in the category of “Implementation” and lose points in “Policy” and “Checking and Corrective Action.” In other words, a program defined is a program effectively implemented. However, a program implemented is unlikely to be tracked for performance or measured for success. This latter category is clearly a weak link for many institutions or programs. The higher scores typically come from an institution that has strong upper administration support and therefore has a policy and an obligation to conduct program reviews for reporting to senior management.
  • We have found that the value of scoring is not the absolute result, but simply that there is a score! This score can be compared against departments, schools or across campuses if there is reason to believe that the people doing the score have followed the same criteria. We have seen the competitive juices and grade-conscious culture of universities stimulated to improve their score, and thus their performance.
  • That said, few universities are willing to share their scores with external parties. Some universities have voiced concern that such scores may be discoverable by the EPA. Because this self-assessment is a “beyond compliance” initiative, unrelated to any regulation enforced by the EPA, we believe that there is little risk that this exercise can be used against a university. In any case, it is unlikely that U.S. News and World Report will soon set EMS or “Greening” as a key criterion that is scored in its annual survey of colleges and universities.
  • Most institutions have found that the greatest value of this rapid self-assessment is the opportunity to ask “process” questions within an interdisciplinary group (e.g., facilities, student, research professional, administration, risk manager) and collaboratively compare notes, discuss environmental issues and discover relevant and effective environmental programs within the institution. This point returns us to one of the original themes of this article: Policies, procedures, programs and people exist in higher education; the key, and the challenge, is uniting them in a coherent management system(s).
  • We have found that results from this tool are of significant value to senior administration because it uses concepts familiar to them, and respects their role in directing policy and conducting management reviews rather than being involved in the minutia of regulatory compliance.
  • Discovering programs beyond EH&S boundaries, interacting with multiple stakeholders and identifying policies and procedures already successfully implemented can help in better understanding the EMS within your institution and in developing a roadmap for improvement.
  • We have found that the self-assessment is flexible enough to accommodate a review at a variety of scales, from (1) the entire campus; (2) organizational groupings within the campus (e.g., schools or departments); or (3) environmental impacts. For example, the University of Vermont used the tool to evaluate its “system” for managing its solid waste, air and water impacts. They were interested to find that the strengths and weaknesses of their management were generally consistent across the categories.
  • While the tool is widely distributed and continues to be downloaded on a daily basis, it is too early to measure any impact of the tool in transforming EH&S management behavior in higher education. We do know that some universities have used the scores to develop EMS improvement plans. For example, a number of institutions that scored poorly in the Environmental Policy category have pointed to this deficiency in arguing to senior administration for an environmental policy. (For those considering the development of an Environmental Policy, the National Wildlife Federation is currently conducting a benchmark review and analysis of such environmental performance and policies in higher education. Go to www.nwf.org/campus). Other institutions have set their sights on improving their scores to all 2’s by the end of 2001.
  • Most universities conducting the self-assessments were less concerned with poor scores in the areas that might be termed “ISO 14001 oriented.” Formal procedures, excessive documentation and heavy emphasis on recordkeeping to demonstrate conformance with explicit policies and procedures were not perceived as priorities.
  • It is our sense, based on conversations with EH&S professionals, that the EMS approach for colleges and universities is sensible in trying to balance a people-centered management approach (e.g., departmental turf, greening initiatives) with a structure that can sustain an initiative or program in an individual’s absence.
  • We have found in our workshops that the C2E2 EMS Self-Assessment may not be as valuable a tool to small colleges as a simpler approach. For such institutions, it may be wise first to identify major EH&S and “green” programs and subsequently complete an EMS summary sheet (see C2E2.org) to determine if each program is managed in accordance with certain EMS elements (e.g., objectives, targets, defined roles and responsibilities, training, monitoring of performance). If all the institution’s programs contain these elements, the EMS “bucky ball” may be complete and an effective EMS in place. This grass roots approach to building from the ground up can be used to build an EMS, especially in the absence of senior administrative support or resources.


In assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an institution’s approach to improving environmental performance, many colleges and universities have found that the C2E2 EMS Self-Assessment Checklist offers a process for honestly appraising current conditions and for building a sustainable system for improving environmental performance on campus. Based on the initial feedback, the C2E2 is focusing its next steps on developing best practice examples and evaluating appropriate Environmental Performance Indicators for higher education.


  1. C2E2 members Boston College, University of Massachusetts Boston and the University of Vermont received EPA approval on September 28, 1999 to pilot an alternative performance-based regulatory model for managing hazardous wastes in laboratories. An important element in this approval was the inclusion of an EMS basis within the pilot replacement regulation. Additional information can be found at www.c2e2.org.

Thomas Balf is Director of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence: c/o Nexus Environmental Partners, One Financial Center, Boston, MA 02111; tel: 617-951-1181; email: tbalf@nexep.com.

Ralph Stuart is Environmental Safety Program Manager, University of Vermont, and President of the C2E2: Environmental Safety Facility, University of Vermont, P.O. Box 50570, Burlington, VT 05405; tel: 802-656-5403; email: rstuart@esf.uvm.edu.

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