Article 3

Institutionalising SD into HEIs: Advantages & Solutions

By Sorina Antonescu

Universities and the Challenge of Larger Systems Interactions

According to Velazquez et al. (2006, p. 812) a sustainable university can be defined as:

A higher educational institution, as whole or as a part that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or global level, the minimisation of negative environmental, economic, societal and health effects generated in the use of their resources in order to fulfil its function of teaching, research, outreach and partnership, and stewardship in ways to help society make the transition to sustainable lifestyles.

Similarly, Cole (2003, p.30) envisages a sustainable campus community as:

 (…) one that acts upon its local and global responsibilities to protect and enhance the health and well-being of humans and ecosystems. It actively engages the knowledge of the university community to address the ecological and social challenges that we face now and in the future.

Undoubtedly, statements similar to the ones outlined above stand proof to the well-intended, ambitious and even visionary nature of their authors. Yet, despite their far-sighted goals, these relatively broad and abstract views fail to provide the genuine contribution required to compile a comprehensive and detailed guide, narrower in scope, such that it becomes possible to take the proactive steps necessary to turn this seemingly impracticable feat of sustainable-universities-leading-by-example into a tangible reality.  

Since the 1972 Stockholm Conference (UNEP,1972) when education was internationally recognised as having a crucial role in environmental conservation, there has been a steady trickle of additional charters, academic declarations and agreements (Lozano et al., 2013, p.11). These were designed to support environmental education (EE), sustainable development (SD) and education for sustainable development (ESD) through the provision of frameworks that would enable HEIs to incorporate sustainability into their system (ibid).

In chronological order, among the most prolific agreements of this kind include the 1990 Tailloires Declaration, the 1991 Halifax Declaration, the 1993 Kyoto Declaration, Swansea Declaration and the COPERNICUS University Charter; among the more recent ones are the 2001 Luneburg Declaration on Higher Education for SD, the 2005 Graz declaration on committing Universities to SD and the 2009 Abuja Declaration on The Role of Higher Education in SD along with the Turin Declaration on Education and Research for Sustainable and Responsible Development (ibid, p.12).

The prevalent themes that act as common ground for all these official papers can be found in the work of Calder and Clugston (2003) and Wright (2004). Lozano et al. (2013, p.12) outlines a number of them which predominantly focus on environmental degradation and societal threats stemming from consumption deemed unsustainable; the moral necessity of HEIs leadership to work towards bringing about a more equitable society that does not put pressure on future generations’ living experience, a problem known as intergenerational injustice; the proliferation of SD across all disciplines, making it an inherent component of universities’ curricula; sponsoring wide-scale, SD driven research; and re-structuring university operations in line with sustainable practices. Other measures emphasize inter-university collaboration; increasing stakeholder involvement that appeals to public governments, NGOs and businesses; and a level of collaboration that extends across all the points highlighted so far.

Signing up to these agreements include over 1000 university leaders who ratified their pledge to promote SD in their respective institutions, whether it is through their curricula, research operations, campus activities and/or outreach to local communities and beyond. While this might seem an encouraging prospect, the fact that there are over 14.000 universities in the world (ibid, p.11), where a significant proportion have yet to make a definable impact in this area, raises questions as to the factors that hinder the implementation of SD, a process that lacks the dynamism contained within the collection of international agreements that have accumulated over the years, to little effect relative to the revolutionary nature of their content.

As discussed in the previous article, some of the principal setbacks likely to account for the slow progress of HEIs in adopting and implementing sustainability across the board include a lack of SD awareness (David et al., 2003; Lozano, 2006); insecurity and threat to academic credibility from teachers (Peet et al., 2004), increased subject specialism and over-crowded curricula (Abdul-Wahab et al., 2003; Chau, 2007); a lack of relevant support and suitable leadership (Velazquez et al., 2005); SD perceived as being too abstract, broad or lacking relevance in certain disciplines; a lack of direction to enable engaging with SD and its implementation across the multi-layered university system (Lozano, 2010); the dominance of academic conservationism and a preference for the mono-disciplinary and modular  nature of teaching and learning (as cited in Lozano et al., 2013, p.11). All these factors, hinder the embedding of sustainability into HE since they are unable to address the multidimensional and interconnected environmental, socio-political and economic issues facing modern-day societies, which instead require an ‘integrated and systematic approach to decisions making, investments and management’ (Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008, p.1778).

HEIs as an organisation (relative to individual efforts) face additional challenges in adopting innovative solutions that reflect a university’s commitment to implement a sustainable ethos in its diverse activities, particularly when confronted with as abstract a concept as SD (Lozano, 2013).

Sharp (2002) who carried studies on environmental initiatives at thirty universities in Europe and the US, found that the core defining characteristic of HEIs is that of complexity. This coupled with the lack of a centralised system to implement wide-system changes across the three main subcultures that make up a university, namely, faculty, administration and the student body renders co-operation difficult. He continues to explain that the push and pull forces that drive the decision-making process along with the priorities of each subculture are as diverse as the responsibilities and aims of each group. In this current scenario, there is little room for enhanced collaboration between institutional, departmental, administrative and student organisations.

A likely outcome of this clear-cut and disjoined system on which HEIs appear to operate is summarised by Cortese (2003, p.18), whose reasoning, despite referring to the prevalent disciplinarity in HE curricula, also applies to the current HE management practices. According to Cortese,

Compartmentalised knowledge without connection to larger systems interactions results in viewing many interdependent challenges as separate, hierarchical and competitive. The net results are often unintended, narrow, ineffective solutions, or worse, more harmful to people and the environment in another place or another time.

Cortese then backs up his assertion with the example of a Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle that uses considerably less gasoline and only emits 1/8 of the smog- producing emissions of other vehicles. While at first sight driving an environmentally-friendly car might appear as an adequate solution, when larger systems thinking is applied, the outcome is less satisfactory. For instance, it does not reduce traffic congestion, noise or safety issues, it does not reduce paving over green spaces or contribute to social justice problems experienced by low-income individuals who lack access to jobs in locations not catered for by public transportation. If anything, a boom in the acquisition of Toyota Priuses would only increase the long term problem of traffic congestion and the consequences associated with it. Contrary to this solution, large systems thinking would try to find solutions to reduce the need for driving in the first place, by localising businesses, activities and jobs that would minimise adverse health, social and ecological effects (ibid).

In support of Cortese, Lotz-Sisika (2004) explains that in order to achieve a systemic and long-term makeover in university practices ‘there is a need for changes in the architecture of higher education institutions to make real change last’ (as cited in Lidgren et al., 2006, p.798). Orr (1994, p.5) also makes a poignant comment that brings the first part of this discussion to a logical conclusion.

The kind of education we need begins with the recognition that the crisis of global ecology is first and foremost a crisis of values, ideas, perspectives and knowledge, which makes it a crisis of education not one in education.

  1. Can HEIs meet the challenge?
  2. Roger’s (1995) adopter category taken from

The answer to this question is a definite and conclusive yes. Higher Education Institutions are able face the challenge of revolutionising their teaching, learning, and organisational practices, in order to adopt a sustainable mind-set at the level of faculty, administrative and student activities within the university premises and beyond. The main challenges have to do less with universities’ financial or human resources that would take on this process, as it is about individual drive and group willingness, long-term motivation to enable gradual progression and implementation of SD, along with the time frame to do so. The  university’s already existing infrastructure can be tweaked to suit the purpose while the people necessary to initiate the SD feat, namely, academics, support staff and the students they educate and cater for, are already in place to start revolutionising both the university content and conduct.

As Rogers (1995) points out, the process of implementing an innovative concept such as SD at an institutional level is not without its difficulties, particularly when a specific strategy has not been yet been set in place. However, once an innovation is adopted and starts to be diffused throughout the university system by being put into practice consistently, long-term, and by different members of the organisation until wide-spread stabilisation is achieved, its status then changes from that of an ‘innovation’ to becoming an integral part of the institution’s culture and make-up. In Roger’s (1995) adopter category (shown in figure 1) he identifies 4 types of groups, namely, innovators, early adopters, early majority and laggards who ultimately undergo what Sherry (2003) calls the three stages of an innovation: diffusion, implementation and institutionalisation. This indicates that the process of embedding SD into the multi-dimensional university system must be proactive, gradual, systematic and with clear-cut, long-term objectives.

Having discussed all the above, the time has come to move on from a theoretical sphere to a more pragmatic approach that attempts to cover some of the fundamental elements that can foster and enable university engagement with sustainability at an institutional, departmental and individual level.

What will it take?

An unprecedented level of intra-university collaboration is required to kick-start or, in cases where SD is already under way, to strengthen the efforts towards implementing sustainability in university curricula, operations, research and outreach. While there is no clear cut way to go about this process, there seems to be a consensus in the relevant literature that emphasizes the need for a committed and centralised university management, an effective system of organisation that enhances communication between academic, administrative and teaching staff and students, in conjunction with spreading responsibility throughout the institution.

Such measures would allow for a two way communication system that enables the wide-spread implementation of a top –down approach, while at the same time flexible enough to enable teaching fellows and personnel who are directly attuned to the daily classroom and campus activities to provide feedback on initiatives that proved lucrative or otherwise.  These insights would then trickle back up to the management for further measures. The idea behind a more centralised HEI is to allow information to circulate from a strong and committed leadership to the wider university staff who would be empowered to mould directives coming from the top and embed them into their teaching material in harmony with the discipline that they are in charge of. Empowering staff to take leadership in their own area of expertise with guidance from a team of committed individuals is beneficial for two main reasons:

1.       It would give the embedding of SD into disciplines the legitimacy (Holmberg et al., 2008, p.273) that it currently lacks, by being turned into a measure prioritised at the highest level of management, such as the Board of Trustees.

2.      Ensuring leadership from the top would also mean a shift from what Clare and Mathaisel (2005, p.136) refer to as a ‘command post’ mind-set to one of ‘common vision’ that encourages shared responsibility among the many, but maintains in place a committed leadership that outlines clearly defined SD institutional goals. This can only come by diffusing responsibility across departments and empowering employees, in an atmosphere of openness and transparency, to attune their disciplines, campus responsibilities or research operations, in line with principles of sustainability.

The alternative, which entails giving out instructions and adequate training but not putting a feedback system in place, could lead to a potential loss of valuable insights from classroom experiences, and a continuation of a command structure that is disempowering for staff ‘on the ground’. The advantage of enabling staff to highlight advantages or benefits with certain SD measures or point out flaws in undergoing schemes, ask for further assistance or training, helps provide valuable feedback to a management able to reconsider or build on aspects of the SD that would already be underway across undergraduate programmes. 

As Holmberg et al. (2008, p.279) points out

Learning processes of individuals start through interactive approaches based on dialogue. (…) mandates and declarations are insufficient and need to be accompanied by face-to-face processes based on creating curiosity and giving importance to the contribution to ESD that can be done from any discipline

For example, a committed university management would form a specially appointed committee on SD, such as a group of academics and outside experts with experience in sustainability that would be able to devise and compile educational material for the teaching staff and their respective departments in order to provide in-service training. This would be one of the measures the university leadership could implement in order to train their academic staff which in turn empowers them to introduce concepts of SD into their research and teaching (Filho, 2000; Davis et al., 2003). Teaching fellows would be encouraged to learn more about the field of SD by attending courses and networking events – intra-departmental and inter-institutional- organised by the SD appointed committee (Holmberg et al., 2008). They would be given financial incentives or formal recognition in their own departments as leading examples of employee excellence and encouraging others in the process to become actively involved.

It is important to place emphasis on the in-service training aspect of the professoriate since without adequate preparation of the teaching staff there is the risk for various faculties to interpret SD too narrowly, e.g.: focusing on efficiency increase or reduction of pollution (Filho, 2000; Davis et al., 2003). Both staff and students must come to view sustainability as a complex concept that is not limited to ecological domains but one that includes economic and social aspects and the interactions between them (Davis et al, 2003) and more importantly, one that has relevance to their discipline. The comprehensive nature of SD should not be seen as a challenge but rather as an opportunity for teachers to use its wide appeal to incorporate it into the university’s undergraduate programmes.

In terms of curricula restructuring, making SD an integral part of every discipline should follow naturally from a well-trained and informed academic staff that understands the relevance of SD to their particular discipline. While a number of universities in the UK have developed targeted environmental degrees, this solution does not resolve the problem of how to make sustainability a central tenet of traditional STEM disciplines or how to relate SD to a number of social sciences such as sociology, law, linguistics and so on. Preserving the conservative disciplinary aspect of teaching is not the desired outcome for an SD plan, since the type of individualistic, traditional learning has not been designed to cope with the multi-dimensional complexity of problems facing society today.

Another issue that in a way de-legitimises the importance of SD in undergraduate programmes is whether modules appertaining to that programme that relate to SD are compulsory or optional (an example would be how chemistry has come to play a pivotal role in pharmaceuticals and agricultural production and their subsequent impact on communities, ecosystems and society at large). A glimpse at the course outlay of STEM undergraduate programmes at a number of UK universities is enough to suggest that modules which digress from knowledge purely relating to helping the student master the discipline, are deemed optional and subject to the students’ preference. This contrasts with targeted environmental degrees where modules containing aspects of sustainability are compulsory. By making all modules relating to SD non-optional regardless of the discipline being taught, SD becomes an integral part of the programme, deemed as important as the basic principles of chemistry, physics or biology  for instance, these being taught early on to enable students to advance in their understanding of the subject to higher levels.  

While it is true that student’s perceptions of sustainability is greatly dependent on the classroom experience through assigned readings, class discussions, projects and field-trips (David et al., 2003), the current literature also stresses the importance of raising student awareness on sustainability by extending their experience of SD beyond the classroom setting and into their day to day curricular and extra-curricular activities, which take place on the university campus and beyond.

A particular concept that will be discussed in more depth in the next article is Savageau’s (2013) self-audit and self-reflection model, explored though a case-study conducted at the University of California, Davis, in an attempt to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation for living sustainably.

Savageau and others (Holmberg et al., 2008; David at al., 2003; Filho, 2000; Cortese, 2003, Lidgren at al., 2006) acknowledge the fact that student awareness on issues of sustainability is minimal with a large part of the student community expressing limited concern for their consumption and waste, while matters related to sustainability are ‘distant and impersonal or overwhelming’ (Savageau, 2013, p.15).

Savageau (ibid) proposes raising student awareness levels in SD and motivate long term behavioural change through an integrated course entitled Introduction to Sustainable Design, such as the one designed at the University of California, where undergraduate students engage in the design and use of a personal Resource Consumption and Waste Audit that gives a real indication of their personal resource consumption and waste generation on campus premises. The results of this experiment are lucrative, with the majority of students expressing concern over their material use and a proactive attitude towards a more resource-conscious way of living.

This particular case study proved insightful as it highlighted students’ lack of awareness in matters of sustainability, but also brought into focus the students’ difficulty in conducting the audit, in part due to the lack of concrete means to measure their daily consumption such as water and electricity usage.

Linked to this is the fact that university residence halls do not charge students for individual consumption of water, heat and light which in part explains students’ lack of awareness on these matters. This could be changed however, by installing metres in student rooms and making students alert to their resource use through monthly bills. Additionally, facilities and utility companies, if possible, would be made to share information with campus users on the energy used in classrooms, libraries and common campus spaces by installing visible meters or devising an  online, ‘real-time, web-based feedback’ (Savageau, 2013). This could be coupled with an innovative coding system devised by the university’s IT department highlighting individual areas on campus which appear to make high use of energy (an idea would be to colour code them RED) and areas/departments that make conscious efforts to save up on energy use (colour code GREEN or AMBER if there are some attempts to conserve energy or water usage).  A reward system would also be put in place to acknowledge real efforts towards energy conservation in certain campus areas, and identify the staff/students taking the lead in that instance, such as a profile-check in the university magazine or the student-led newspapers. This would place emphasis on individual efforts and reward them accordingly.

All the processes highlighted so far would be on-going and open to re-structuring and change. Campus and curricula reshuffling would be a gradual, trial-and-error process that builds on the lucrative measures of a strong and committed university leadership, who empowers lecturers to work proactively at the departmental level with in collaboration with academic and administrative staff and the student body. This would all take place in an atmosphere that allows openness and transparency and welcomes constructive feedback. The process of embedding sustainability across the university system would at this point become a real process with a positive outcome that has the potential to inspire generations of businessmen, politicians and individuals in search of sustainable solutions to a number of environmental, socio-political and economic problems facing modern day societies.  

In the following article, the aim is to present and discuss in detail a number of case studies that focus on a number of HEIs around the world and their attempts to institutionalise sustainability in their curricula, research, operations and outreach along with their subsequent successes and failures. The points discussed in the present article will also be highlighted with relevant examples. This final issue aims to further piece together the outline of a gradual transformative and transitional process that would turn 21st century HEIs into sustainable organisations leading by example.



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