Penn State recognized as sustainability leader in global impact ranking

Penn State was ranked third in the U.S. and 35th in the world by Times Higher Education in a broad multidimensional assessment of a university’s research, community outreach and education and campus operations through the lens of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: Kevin Sliman / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State was ranked third in the U.S. and 35th in the world out of 767 international institutions that participated in the Times Higher Education (THE) University Impact Rankings. The global rating is a broad multidimensional assessment of a university’s research, community outreach and education and campus operations. The criteria used in the assessment are linked to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), global goals adopted by all United Nations Member States that look to improve life for all people and protect the planet.  

In addition to being in the top 5% globally, Penn State ranked sixth in the world in SDG 14, Life Below Water; 13th for SDG 15, Life on Land; and 17th in the world for SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, among international institutions that submitted for specific SDGs.

The University also had very strong showings in SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities; SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy; SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; and SDG 17, Partnership for the Goals.

“Penn State is proud to be recognized as a global leader among universities advancing sustainability through innovative teaching, research and service,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “I’m also pleased to see these rankings highlight the many facets of our university, showcasing the efforts from our campuses throughout Pennsylvania as well as Penn State Extension. Solving today’s complex challenges requires ongoing and open collaboration across disciplines, and our strong commitment to this multidisciplinary approach plays a central role in the University’s ability to create a more equitable and sustainable future for all.”

Penn State’s ranking is due in part to its breadth and depth of exceptional research, including its strength as Pennsylvania’s land-grant and sea-grant university. Projects that were highlighted in the assessment included contributions in areas such as coral reefs, forest management, water treatment, agriculture, engineering and the food-energy-water nexus.  

“Penn State researchers not only have a commitment to making advances in their areas of expertise, but also a keen interest in impacting the world through applied research and outcomes,” said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research. “The University’s excellent placement on the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings is evidence of Penn State’s pledge to help solve some of the world’s most difficult challenges, and to making meaningful contributions to sustainable living and to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Another strong factor was the University’s commitment to innovative campus operations, both by the Office of Physical Plant as well as the operating procedures of units from across Penn State.  

“At Penn State, we prioritize sustainability in everything we do, and I'm thrilled that the hard work done by students, faculty and staff across the University enabled us to achieve this prestigious ranking," said Nicholas P. Jones, executive vice president and provost. "We will build on this milestone as we continue to implement Penn State's strategic plan, which cites ‘Ensuring a Sustainable Future’ as a foundation. Facets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are being included in units' strategic plans, which will support our sustainability efforts University-wide and in our communities."  

The University works to contribute to a healthy, more sustainable planet. For example, Penn State has developed multiple strategies to reduce its energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. The University is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 35% (from its peak in 2005) by 2020. It has an even more ambitious target of an 85% reduction by 2050.   

Additionally, the University’s water management programs are led by a conservation program that has reduced its annual water usage by 25%. Other important factors include the University’s stormwater infrastructure, stream bank restoration, source water protection and the living filter, a 600-acre area of land where treated effluent from Penn State’s wastewater treatment plant is applied, then filtered naturally through plants, soil and rocks before it recharges the region’s water table. 

Furthermore, Penn State uses its facilities as a living lab to continuously improve outcomes. The University's 30 million square feet of facilities provide opportunities for academic enhancement, research partnerships and student engagement.  

Another key facet in Penn State’s ranking was its core missions of service and engagement. This includes outreach through facilities, such as The Arboretum at Penn State, Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, the Student Farm at Penn State and Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Outreach through education and engagement was also noted in the ranking, including the community forum on water quality in Spring Creek watershed, efforts on eradicating the spotted lanternfly, improving agricultural impact in the Chesapeake Bay as well as the many programs offered by Penn State Extension.   

2020 was the first year that Penn State participated in THE University Impact Rankings. This is the second year of THE University Impact Rankings, and the first year that all 17 SDGs were a part of the assessment.

Last Updated November 05, 2020