Campus reflection on the Keweenaw Waterway in fall

Good as Gold: Tech Earns STARS Gold Rating for Sustainability

A number of campus sustainability initiatives have reduced Michigan Tech’s carbon footprint by over 25% since 2017 and recently earned the University a STARS Gold recognition.

For the first time in University history, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) recognized Michigan Technological University’s sustainability achievements with a STARS Gold rating.

After earning a STARS Silver Rating in 2020, Michigan Tech is one of only five public universities in Michigan to earn gold in 2023. STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, measures and encourages sustainability in all aspects of higher education. The framework offers points in five categories — academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership — that add up to a final score. 

Wheelbarrow in Wadsworth Hall garden
The vegetable garden at Wadsworth Hall. 

“This accomplishment is a testament to years of work by an active community of faculty, staff and students across campus,” said Alan Turnquist, director of sustainability and resilience at Michigan Tech. “For decades the people of Michigan Tech have worked to advance sustainability in everything from research and teaching to planning and facilities management. We’re proud to finally see all the hard work pay off and be recognized.”

MTU’s overall STARS score of 65.69 places the University in the top 25% of all schools nationwide who submitted STARS reports. The areas for which Michigan Tech received the highest marks include research and teaching, innovation, and planning and administration. Over 200 Tech researchers and instructors across all academic departments are conducting sustainability-focused or sustainability-inclusive research and education, creating knowledge and solutions for a more sustainable world. 

Serious About Sustainability

According to Turnquist, one of the major factors leading to MTU’s gold rating was the administration’s commitment to expanding short-term sustainability initiatives by giving them long-term direction and institutional investment. STARS ratings are intentionally designed to show how serious an institution truly is about sustainability, not just how well they talk about it. Universities who get the highest ratings do so only by setting sustainability goals and committing tangible resources to achieve them. 

“Since the launch of the Tech Forward initiatives in 2018, Michigan Tech has been very intentional about sustainability,” said Turnquist. “We not only included sustainability in the University’s strategic plan, we also created an office and a full-time position solely devoted to campus sustainability. That kind of investment of resources and intention is exactly what AASHE rewards in the STARS ratings, because ultimately that is what makes sustainability on campus a reality.”

Lanse solar panel install
Students installing solar panels in L'Anse. 

A number of campus sustainability initiatives have contributed to Michigan Tech’s STARS Gold recognition, including many energy savings and climate mitigation efforts that have reduced the University’s carbon footprint by over 25% since 2017. Nearly 140 tons of material each year are diverted from the landfill thanks to a number of campus reuse, recycling and waste reduction programs, including:

  • The Husky Food Access Network food pantry.
  • The Clothing Closet free store in Douglass Houghton Hall.
  • The Husky Exchange program, which gathers unwanted items from students as they move out of residence halls in spring for donation to local organizations or for reuse by students in the fall.
"Achieving the STARS Gold Rating reflects the significant and ongoing collaborative work of campus stakeholders. It also reflects the University’s commitment to building the architecture of excellence. This rating exemplifies our commitment to making incremental and persistent efforts to improve our sustainability and resilience, which will drive new practices and yield the outcomes expected of a flagship technological university."Nicholas Stevens, chief financial officer and senior vice president for administration, Michigan Tech

Michigan Tech offers faculty incentives for creating courses and building research around sustainability initiatives. Project-based learning initiatives across campus also provide students opportunities to solve real-world sustainability challenges while working on interdisciplinary teams. The University also instilled sustainability into the intellectual foundation of its many centers and institutes of transdisciplinary research, from the Health Research Institute to the Ecosystem Science Center.

K-Day table
Students learn about the Sustainability Demonstration House initiatives at K-Day. 

“Michigan Tech’s institutional culture supports high-impact transdisciplinary research leadership in sustainability and resilience,” said Chelsea Schelly, professor of sociology and director of research in the Center for Innovation in Sustainability and Resilience. “This provides opportunities for researchers across campus to address sustainability and resilience challenges by bridging social, ecological and engineering sciences to contribute to a more sustainable and socially just future.”

"Transdisciplinary approaches to science — bringing community partners in as experts who can help identify research priorities and design projects to address those priorities — are key to Michigan Tech’s leadership in sustainability and resilience research. These approaches take more time, as they require building relationships and working collaboratively, and Michigan Tech leadership supports research excellence in ways that make it possible to meaningfully address sustainability challenges through such impactful research."Chelsea Schelly, professor of sociology and director of research, Center for Innovation in Sustainability and Resilience

Michigan Tech also has many campus programs devoted specifically to sustainability, including: 

  • The Sustainability Demonstration House, which serves as a living laboratory for applied learning and outreach.
  • The Green Campus Enterprise, a student-run team in MTU’s Enterprise Program. Green Campus works closely with Michigan Tech’s administration to effectively engage the University community in measuring and reducing its carbon footprint. Student members design, implement and assess projects ranging from heat recovery and food waste reduction to stormwater management.
  • The Sandia National Laboratories’ solar energy Regional Test Center (RTC), which has grown into a nationally recognized, state-of-the-art technical platform for evaluating the performance and reliability of emerging photovoltaic technologies.
  • The Chernosky Campus Climate Ambassador Award, an annual award that provides one chosen undergraduate recipient with a partial tuition scholarship of $8,000, plus $1,600 for professional development and formal mentorship by sustainability professionals. The award was established by Karen and Mike ’69 Gregory in memory of former Michigan Tech professor Frank Chernosky ’55, an early advocate for sustainability principles. 

Just Part of Who We Are

“What distinguishes Tech is the breadth and depth of our scholarship and research on sustainability, particularly for being founded as a mining school whose primary purpose was to support resource extraction,” said Turnquist. “Now, every department on campus has strong ties to sustainability. And even though we continue to be true to our original charter to serve the industry needs of Michigan, we have really integrated and prioritized sustainability across campus and made it core to our identity.”

Get Involved

Want to help make Michigan Tech even more sustainable? Donate to the Sustainability Fund Match crowdfunding effort. 

For all the accomplishments the STARS Gold Rating represents for Michigan Tech, Turnquist is quick to note that the work has only just begun. He says sustainability is a continual “long haul” kind of process — one that requires committed people who believe in the work and take pride in it, not just in the gold stars that look nice on a resume or annual report.

"We face huge global challenges around climate change that will require us to decrease our energy use and carbon footprint and build a campus that is resilient to current and future climatic changes. To make real progress, we need to use this recognition from STARS to create a common sense of urgency so we can build momentum toward achieving our remaining sustainability goals."Alan Turnquist, director of sustainability and resilience, Michigan Tech

“STARS provides us with a roadmap for continuing and extending the progress we’ve made, but real change takes time,” said Turnquist. “We must continue pursuing sustainability in ways that also support both the financial performance of the institution and our core mission of research and teaching. Fortunately, we have people here willing to find the right solutions for our campus and our global community. And that is what sustainability is all about.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.