Universities are transforming their campuses into beacons of environmental sustainability across North America.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, October 2008: Universities are buying vegetables from local farms, driving hybrid vehicles, and promoting bicycle-sharing programs. Some even measure their campus carbon emissions, according to the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a research organization based in Massachusetts.

For the last three years, this non-profit has issued report cards that grade college campuses on their environmental performance. The group tries to see if institutions of higher learning meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. This year, its College Sustainability Report Card 2009 ranked 300 universities in the United States and Canada.

Not a single one received a straight “A” overall. Five percent got an “A-” including the University of British Columbia (UBC), the University of Vermont, Harvard University, Brown University and Oberlin College. Two percent received an “F” including Brigham Young University and Howard University. On average, the schools scored a “C+.”

UBC received its high marks for easing the flow of 45,000 students who commute to its Vancouver campus. The university provides free transit passes, carpool programs and a commercial car-sharing program. Its plant operations vehicle fleet runs on biodiesel made from used fryer oil.

Another leader is the University of Washington. Its Seattle campus purchases 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Energy conservation projects have saved the university over 43 million kilowatt-hours per year. Harvard University gets a thumbs-up for insisting on green building guidelines for all construction and renovation projects costing more than $100,000. It also has a Green Campus Initiative.

Universities focus on the environment for a number of reasons. First, they lower their operating costs when they build energy-efficient dorms, offices and laboratories. These cost-saving measures take priority at a time of high oil and gas prices.

Second, universities are seen as innovators. Faced with increasing pressure to take action on climate change, they look for creative solutions. Their green policies attract environmentally-friendly professors, administrators and students alike. They, in turn, reinforce the university’s efforts at cleaning the environment.

Finally, today’s students are aware of the world’s ecological challenges. The Princeton Review, according to the Sustainable Endowments Institute, polled 10,300 college applicants. It found that 63 percent thought a college’s commitment to the environment could affect their decision. Universities take notice when potential clients have the environment on their minds.

“Many of our students come here specifically because of our position on sustainability,” says UBC Sustainability Office director Charlene Easton. Her office is, by the way, funded through savings made from energy initiatives on campus.

This greening trend among universities is “generally positive,” according to the College Sustainability Report Card. Two out of three schools graded in 2008 improved their overall score in 2009. Those with full-time sustainability staff positions grew from 37 percent to 66 percent during the same period.

The weakest spot is their lack of shareholder engagement – 56 percent of colleges ranked scored an “F” on this issue. Only 11 percent have a multiple committee made up of students, faculty, staff and alumni to help inform trustees’ decisions on shareholder proxy resolutions.

Yet universities are still breaking ground on the environmental front. Saving the planet is no longer limited to fringe professors. The issue has now been embraced in ways unimaginable a few decades back. And the physical progress seen on campuses – from biodegradable containers to fair trade coffee – are having a real impact on the green movement across North America.