Talking leadership 3: Minouche Shafik on embedding sustainability

The LSE director on the institution’s green strategy, the importance of social scientists working with industry and the advantages of being ‘different’

November 23, 2021
Minouche Shafik
Source: London School of Economics and Political Science

Dame Minouche Shafik believes there is strength in being an outsider. From the age of four, she was an Egyptian living in the US, where her family had emigrated following the nationalisation of much of their property by Gamal Abdel Nasser. She pursued a career in the male-dominated field of economics, was the youngest ever vice-president at the World Bank and worked as a non-British permanent secretary to the UK government’s Department for International Development.

In short, she is not your average UK vice-chancellor.

“I've often been someone who's just a little bit different,” says Shafik, who has led the London School of Economics and Political Science since 2017.

Not coming from the same background as people around her has meant that the bars for success are “a little bit higher,” she says – but it has also meant that she brings a fresh perspective and is willing to listen to others who aren’t from the same mould.

Earlier this month, the LSE laid claim to being the first UK university to be awarded carbon neutral status, and Shafik tells Times Higher Education about the toughest aspects of implementing an environmental strategy, how the institution turned one problem into a unique opportunity, and the lessons she brought from other chapters of her varied career – including examples of what not to do from MPs and the World Bank.

Going green
Listening is something Shafik is particularly keen on, and so the first stage of the LSE’s new green strategy, developed in 2020, involved gathering the views of students and staff via surveys, meetings and focus groups.

She credits the initial consultation process with getting everyone on board. “People sometimes make the mistake of thinking they’re going to lose a lot of time [by consulting]”, she says, but actually “implementation goes twice as fast because everybody has already agreed”.

“I remember being at the World Bank, where there was not genuine consultation when big changes were made. So the change was announced, and then you had five years of trench warfare where every bit of the organisation resisted the change in various ways because they basically didn't agree with it.”

While there had been pockets of work towards sustainability at the LSE for years, it was only two years ago that Shafik realised that the institution needed to employ a comprehensive approach to the environment.

“If you’re running an organisation that’s full of young people, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got to lean into this issue,” she says.

The strategy has six key areas: shaping the debate through research; embedding sustainability across teaching; promoting the green agenda externally; using sustainability to guide investment decisions; working in collaboration to further the green agenda; and ensuring that the LSE’s own buildings are as environmentally friendly as possible.

The university created a sustainability leadership group headed by Shafik, and senior staff were given responsibility for different areas: the head of research at the LSE is now responsible for sustainability research; the head of education now leads on embedding sustainability in the curriculum. “It wasn’t some peripheral project that a few people worked on,” she says.

Initiatives include tapping into the university’s political connections and holding events for the government; a mandatory course on the environment for all LSE students; and the carbon neutral target.

London School of Economics Centre Building LSE sustainability
Source: 
Nigel Stead
The Centre Building at LSE was built with sustainability at its core

A difficult decision
The LSE has reduced its direct emissions by 44 per cent since 2005 despite an increase in campus size and student numbers, but setting a date for when it hoped to achieve carbon neutrality sparked a difficult decision: to offset or not to offset? If it wanted the date to be sooner rather than later, the LSE would have to invest in schemes to compensate for its residual emissions. But amid growing concerns over dubious offsetting schemes, cries of greenwashing and the potential the practice has to stymie genuine carbon reduction, it had a choice to make.

Again, Shafik reached out to LSE students and staff via a survey and she asked the institution’s own environmental experts, as well as external consultants, to identify the best offset schemes and compile data on the offset market.

“LSE is kind of a nerdy place. People are policy wonks,” she says, by way of explanation.

Students responded well to the data, and staff appreciated being part of the discussion, she adds. The outcome was that the LSE should use responsible carbon offsetting for now but continue reducing carbon emissions.

Another controversial area for universities is accounting for the emissions resulting from international student travel, especially so for an institution that has about 70 per cent overseas students.

The established standard for carbon accounting, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, sets out three scopes outlining which types of emissions should be reported. Scope 3 covers all the indirect emissions that occur as a result of the activities of an organisation, and many in higher education believe this should include student travel. However, it is optional to report on this scope.

“We have talked about travel a lot,” Shafik says, but currently the LSE is not counting student travel in its emissions reporting. “It would be really hard for us to count student travel because [students] buy their own tickets…but we count all of the travel by our own staff.”

Shafik says she would “encourage students to offset their flights if they can afford it” and “to not fly back and forth a lot”. But when it comes to staff, there are set targets to reduce travel.

“Flying in to give a one-hour talk and flying out again – I think that’s very much of the past,” she says.

Opportunity knocks
The hardest part of the strategy, which Shafik says they have not yet cracked, is where the university puts its money. While the LSE does not directly invest in fossil fuel companies, “there are bits of that in our portfolio”, Shafik says, “because many of the things we buy are pools of investments in which there’s lots of different things mixed up”. It is an area where the market has not kept up with political will, she believes, but out of this conundrum came an opportunity.

The LSE was not the first to see how difficult it could be to tease out information on companies’ climate actions, but unlike others, it had experts who could help untangle the strands and support an effort to share the information widely.

The LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment is the academic partner of the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), a project that assesses companies in traditionally high-emitting sectors on their progress towards carbon reduction. Businesses such as E.ON (doing well) and EasyJet (not so great) are assessed on a scale of zero to four that reflects how prepared they are for the transition to a low-carbon economy. By asking questions such as whether they have a carbon reduction policy, if they’re reporting on Scope 3 emissions and whether they undertake climate scenario planning, they provide asset managers with data they can use to guide more sustainable investment. Initially, 500 companies were rated; the number is now up to 10,000.

The Grantham institute developed the assessment framework and hosts the online tool, while FTSE Russell is the data provider for the asset owner-led initiative.

“The right way to do this is not just to say, some sectors are bad, and some sectors are good; it’s not like that. We will need to consume energy. The question is, which companies are actually transitioning quickly to a greener energy supply? And how do we encourage that?” Shafik says.

She is also excited about the initiative because it shows what social scientists can do for the economy. The TPI is the LSE’s first research collaboration with industry.

“Most of the stories that we have in universities are about STEM subjects working with industry,” she says. “I think this shows you how social sciences can contribute to business and to making society better.”

Shafik is especially keen for the UK government to see the benefit of the social sciences, as well as the humanities and the arts.

“There’s so much bashing of the social sciences and humanities at the moment, and so much focus on ‘it’s all going to be STEM’,” she says. “I think this kind of simplistic ‘STEM is good, arts and humanities are bad’ [ethos] is a very bad way of thinking about the future of work.”

Just as dealing with the pandemic required a broad range of academic expertise, from economists to psychologists, the economy of the future will need people with varying skills, Shafik believes, and she is frustrated by the message coming from the government that STEM is the only way. “Especially as they all have arts degrees!” she says of ministers.

When it comes to leadership, Shafik believes that the best leaders are those who listen and learn, something she learned from working for the UK government.

“Ministers who were open to learning and getting input from many people and then coming to their own views, they tended to be more successful than the ones who thought they knew everything walking in the door,” she says.

Shafik adds that the best leaders lead with a light touch, and she has no time for one-upmanship.

“That’s OK for an academic seminar but not when you’re trying to lead in an organisation,” she says. “I’m very big on creating an environment in which everyone feels they can contribute.”


Quick facts

Born: Alexandria, Egypt in 1962

Academic qualifications: BA in economics and politics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; MSc in economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science; DPhil in economics from the University of Oxford

Lives with: Her husband and a cat; their five children have flown the nest

Academic hero: John Maynard Keynes, an English economist who was also a civil servant and director of the Bank of England. “He wasn’t really an academic, but he made these incredible academic contributions. He was a practitioner of policy all his life.”


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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