Leadership intelligence: putting climate talk into action

Sustainability is a priority in higher education, but information on best practice is sparse, writes Vivienne Reiner

February 6, 2020
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It is a well-known adage that to fix a problem, you need first to recognise it. Or, in the language of business, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Where sustainability is concerned, the issue starts with its definition. What is sustainability concerned with: the environment, the economy or society? Or all three? Are we trying to save the planet, or should the focus be on our way of life? Where universities are concerned, is sustainability core to research and education, and if not, does it need to be?

If the United Nations is anything to go by, sustainability certainly needs educational institutions. According to a Unesco policy brief on education for sustainable development: “Education has a…vital role to play in the global effort to halt climate change and set humanity on a course for sustainable development.”

There are about 1,000 member organisations globally on the database of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

With consensual science now showing that previous estimates were overly conservative – and that we have only about a decade to turn things around to avoid dangerous climate change – the importance of our educational institutions in helping to tackle society’s greatest challenge should not be underplayed.

But there is little in the way of guidance on best practice for universities.

The arguments for sustainable universities, as with corporations generally, have been made widely. However, a few specific policy issues for universities stand out:

  • Students: university “customers” are largely young people, who will be at the forefront of, and are already demanding, action on climate change
  • Rankings: Times Higher Education has launched its University Impact Rankings, based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
  • Mega gifts: these sorts of donations are an emerging trend in sustainability research fields. Key attractions are institutions’ ambitious efforts to solve “wicked” environmental problems – think of the recent donation of $750 million (£575 million) to the California Institute of Technology to introduce “sustainability science and engineering” for all undergraduates. A look at one of the world-leading sustainable universities, Stanford University, shows that its commitment has not gone unrewarded. Both its Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and TomKatCenter for Sustainable Energy are funded through philanthropic gifts.

So how are universities rising to the challenge more broadly? There is no universal approach. However, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges is one of a few academic representative organisations that have attempted to make sense of emerging strategies in sustainable education.

The experience of the founding director of Harvard University’s Green Campus Initiative, Leith Sharp, demonstrates that in developing or maturing their sustainability programmes, universities need to tailor approaches to their organisations and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In “Higher education: the quest for the sustainable campus”, an article published in Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy in 2009, she suggests that universities are so complex that often even the leaders do not understand how their institutions work.

It is no wonder then that sustainability – which takes a holistic approach to systemic issues – is no easy thing to achieve in universities.

In its initial phases, Ms Sharp notes, sustainability generally emerged in universities in the 1990s and focused on estates and campus infrastructure.

More recently, the need for sustainability as a whole-of-university endeavour has gained currency. As sustainability has progressed from a fringe to a mainstream concept, so too the appreciation for it has evolved in universities.

Good governance is crucial: given the range of issues in play, it is no surprise that attempts towards greening campuses can be fraught and that some universities struggle to achieve holistic approaches with impact. Strong governance, including adequate resourcing, is critical, as revealed in a recent paper on university sustainability offices.

But it is one thing to look at what higher education institutions are doing. Where is the evidence base to inform best practice? An extensive literature review that I undertook did not uncover any studies into sustainability governance of the world’s university leaders in this space.

My research to plug this gap could help not only those embarking on sustainability initiatives but also those planning their next significant steps. Clear themes emerged among the largely Platinum-rated STARS universities studied, key ones being:

  • increasing academic or “living lab” focus – putting research into practice
  • support from leadership through a representative sustainability committee
  • engagement, usually through a dedicated office of sustainability coordinating programmes across the institution from the grassroots and externally – because it will take all of us to solve these complex issues.

It is relatively early days in the study of sustainable education, but one thing is clear: to have any chance, we need to learn from each other, get the governance right and collaborate. Who knows, important responses and solutions to the climate crisis could come out of our universities.

Vivienne Reiner is a master of sustainability candidate at the University of Sydney, where she also works in communications.


Print headline: Keep cool and move towards green path

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