UC Irvine tops ‘Cool Schools’ list for sustainability efforts

Stanford places second in the Sierra Club magazine's yearly rankings that honor colleges and universities that are pushing environmentally friendly initiatives
By: | September 29, 2020
Photo courtesy of the University of California, Irvine

The University of California, Irvine doesn’t look much different from many campuses across the United States. Sleek architecture combines with lush landscaping to give it the look of a special place, a welcoming grounds for higher education.

But within that environment lies an assortment of remarkable and beautiful things happening, sustainable initiatives that make it one of the greenest, most healthy and most advanced college climates in the nation.

There are electric vehicle charging stations, zero-waste facilities, recycling campaigns and a Student Leadership Institute for Climate Resilience. It even leads solar-power initiatives in nearby communities.

Few institutions have as many environmentally friendly things perking at the same time as UC Irvine or have been able to continue so many of them during the COVID-19 pandemic. For that, the Sierra Club and its Sierra magazine bestowed UC Irvine with its 2020 award for the coolest of Cool Schools in its annual review.

It isn’t the first time Irvine has earned the award. It has earned that recognition four other times, most recently in 2018. It also has been ranked in the Top 10 for 11 consecutive years. With a record 312 colleges and universities competing for top honors this year, UC Irvine officials understand how big a win this is.

“The Sierra ‘Cool Schools’ rankings are respected as the most rigorous measure of an institution’s commitment to environmental and energy research, climate solutions, and the full array of environmental stewardship metrics,” said Wendell Brase, associate chancellor for sustainability at UCI. “Because of this comprehensive breadth, a high Sierra ranking is simply not possible without engagement of the entire faculty, student body and campus leadership. UCI’s legacy of Sierra honors can be claimed by all Anteaters developing research, teaching or seeking solutions across every facet of climate impacts.”

Those Anteaters have a lot to boast about to hip recruits these days. They have one of the best research arms in the country, a competitive gaming program that is the envy of most other institutions, a great location and a penchant for bringing the sustainable front and center.

Among its most recent accolades: having the 10th-greenest fleet of vehicles in the nation among any industry, having the best university or college fleet for its those electric vehicles (and lack of fuel consumption) as well as receiving a nod on The Princeton Review’s 2021 Green Honor Roll, where it scored a 99, the best it could get.

“As UCI is the only university to have ranked in the top 10 ‘Cool Schools’ for an unprecedented 11 years and counting, we’re continually impressed with its commitment to modeling, teaching and embodying excellent environmental stewardship in all areas,” said Katie O’Reilly, Sierra’s adventure and lifestyle editor. “The Anteaters always have fascinating and often surprising sustainability endeavors underway and are truly standouts in this increasingly important space.”

Others near the top

Three others from the University of California system rated in the top 20 – Merced at No. 5, Berkeley at No. 13 and Davis at No. 18. Two more California colleges also scored highly on Sierra’s list, including the runner-up, Stanford, as well as Santa Clara University at No. 19.

Editors at Sierra lauded Stanford for its many unique initiatives that specifically give rewards to staff and students for completing sustainability missions such as carpooling or mitigating food or energy waste. It also noted that the university is opening its own School of Sustainability.

“Among the most urgent issues of our time are climate change and the challenge of creating a sustainable future for people and our planet,” President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said during the school’s announcement in May. “At Stanford we have tremendous strengths in climate and sustainability studies working across the schools and institutes, but there is an opportunity to amplify our contributions in education, research and impact further by aligning people and resources more effectively in a school.”

The Sierra project was open to “all four-year, degree-granting undergraduate colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and two-year community colleges.” The results were tabulated based on a number of factors, including an institution’s progress on energy, air, climate, and transportation, as well as public engagement, civic responsibility, community involvement and curriculum offerings.

One of the most sustainable universities and last year’s winner, Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, fell to the No. 3 position but not without high praise from those in the study. They were particularly drawn in by Thompson Rivers’ mission to become carbon-neutral within the next decade as it aims to replace boilers with electric models. Among the other notable endeavors Sierra liked was its Single Use Item Elimination Task Force.

Rounding out the top 10 were the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Colorado State University, the University of Connecticut, the University of New Hampshire and Colby College in Maine. The SUNY school in particular was lauded by Sierra for its saving on energy costs of nearly half from the previous year by “retrofitting aging buildings and upgrading heating, ventilation, and compressors.” Like Thompson Rivers, UConn has pushed up its carbon-neutral timetable, helped by a push toward more favorable solar and geothermal energies.

Other U.S. colleges to crack the Top 20 included two from the University of Massachusetts system – Amherst at No. 15 and Lowell at No. 16; Cornell University (11), Dickinson College (14) and Chatham College (17) in Pennsylvania, and Seattle University (20).


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com