Universities’ ‘hypocrisy’ on sustainability ‘becoming untenable’

Students believe that institutions must walk their talk when it comes to the future of the planet, Sydney summit hears

October 29, 2019
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Students are becoming increasingly intolerant of universities that do not walk their sustainability talk, an Australian forum has heard.

David Schlosberg, professor of environmental politics at the University of Sydney, said that there was a “huge disconnect” between the things that academics taught and researched and the way they lived their lives.

“For younger researchers [and] certainly for students, that break between knowledge and reality is becoming less tenable,” he told the Sydney Summit, an annual gathering of academics from the university and its overseas partner institutions.

“We are coming upon…[a] real lack of patience with that kind of hypocrisy. The shift to actually do what we say, to implement what we research, is crucial.”

Professor Schlosberg, who also heads the Sydney Environment Institute, credited Times Higher Education’s University Impact Rankings for hounding campus executives to focus more on sustainability. But the most compelling pressure would come from within, as students rebuked universities for failing to practise what they preached.

He said that university hypocrisy took many forms, from academics who flew constantly despite railing about emissions, to campus cafes that sold the types of food nearby researchers blamed for causing cardiovascular disease.

“It’s no surprise that the University of Sydney’s sustainability policy at present is very weak,” he said. “The line now is that Sydney’s been playing the long game. We’ve had very generous help from colleagues across the country. Because other people did it first, we are able to get an understanding of what worked and didn’t work.”

Professor Schlosberg’s frank appraisal comes amid university-wide consultations over Sydney’s new sustainability strategy, to be launched next year as a successor to its 2015 environmental sustainability policy. The university said that it was taking a “holistic” approach encompassing teaching and learning, research and operations.

A recent survey of staff and students, which attracted more than 1,000 responses, highlighted energy and waste as initial priority areas.

Dutch educationalist Margreet de Lange said that students’ interest in sustainability extended beyond the environment and climate. She told the summit that students had been the “most active initiators” of sustainability projects at Utrecht University, where she is international affairs programme manager.

“It’s a generational issue in the sense that the older generation, the ones who are running the university, have to react to the demands and consciousness of students,” she said.

Dr de Lange said that students on an advisory board had lobbied for the president to relinquish his car and driver. “There was a huge row about the cost,” she said. “Now our whole board has to take public transportation.”

University of Toronto vice-provost Joe Wong said that students had been an instrumental force behind Toronto’s new low-carbon action plan. “I don’t want to say that’s totally because of student demands, but students are very much part of the conversation,” he said.

“They are challenging the university administration to play a leadership role in these kinds of initiatives. Students are holding universities to account, which is terrific.”

Professor Wong told the summit that a colleague had enlisted “student enthusiasm” to compile an inventory of sustainability-related courses at the university. The team found that more than one-quarter of the offerings, over 2,000 courses, had “some sustainability content”.

“It will be interesting to see if that grows [over the next] five years,” he told Times Higher Education. “I suspect it will.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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