Leaders mull faculty mergers in bid to hit sustainability goals

Growing focus on cross-disciplinary research to tackle SDGs may lead to institutional shake-ups, conference hears

October 20, 2021
Panama CityPanama, October 18, 2018 The Global Goals displayed in Spanish on the windows at Panama City Tocumen International Airport. Mother and child looking out to see the planes.
Source: iStock

University leaders are giving serious thought to merging faculties and departments with the aim of encouraging more cross-disciplinary research to address sustainability goals, a conference heard.

In recent years, many higher education institutions across the world have begun to link their research efforts to the different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations, with researchers from different disciplines urged to work together on areas such as clean water, food security and sustainable cities.

That step may not be enough to foster the deep collaboration needed to tackle world problems, some institutional leaders have warned.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit, senior university leaders said that the traditional structure of universities, divided into subject-led faculties or departments, can sometimes deter researchers from working more collaboratively on SDG-related topics.

“Do we need to change our structures because SDGs are cross-cutting and transdisciplinary? It is [a debate] that is taking a lot of our time,” said Mahmoud El-Meteini, president of Cairo’s Ain Shams University.

“We are a classic university but we are creating a new campus which will work in a totally interdisciplinary way…the question is whether we need to go [more] multidisciplinary…and do we need to replace certain faculties,” said Professor El-Meteini of potential institutional shake-ups.

The conference also heard from Shinji Kaneko, executive vice-president for global initiatives at Hiroshima University, who said that the Japanese institution’s decision to integrate its 11 graduate schools into just four larger ones – humanities and social sciences, science and engineering, life sciences and biomedical health sciences – was partly driven by a desire to encourage more cross-disciplinary research related to SDGs.

“We have since perhaps been struggling a bit with an identity crisis in these graduate schools,” reflected Professor Kaneko on the institutional change.

That said, Hiroshima’s decision to concentrate on SDG 16 – peace – had been helpful in connecting his institution’s “spiritual foundation” given its place in Second World War history to more “practical work” connected to peace studies, nuclear armament and, more recently, global sustainability, said Professor Kaneko.

“We have grown the scope of our peace work to what we call ‘peace science’ and we have combined peace and sustainability to encourage everyone to join in,” he said, adding that his institution’s civic links had been given fresh impetus by its focus on sustainable cities, another SDG, leading to the creation of a “town and gown office”.

Teboho Moja, professor of higher education at New York University, explained that universities’ embrace of SDG-related research had led to the creation of thousands of academic collaborations, including new local and international networks of scholars, but also, in some cases, unexpected new institutional structures such as cross-departmental working groups within universities.

“Sustainability is a strategic priority at NYU, with an office established to report to the university president that has different stakeholders from across the university looking at the work that needs to be done,” explained Professor Moja, former executive director and commissioner of South Africa’s National Commission on Higher Education.

“These do not follow the same structures that require senate approval,” she observed, predicting that SDGs were likely to become increasingly important in university life, even after the 2030 deadline for achieving them passes.

“SDGs are here to stay – universities are not going to dump this agenda and they won’t drop them even when we come to 2030,” said Professor Moja.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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