It has become painfully clear that we are collectively failing future generations (including our own children) with respect to the pace of progress towards re-wiring our economy to be aligned with human thriving on planet Earth. Recent research has provided concerning evidence that we are already overshooting on 6 of 9 key planetary boundaries.
If we are to right the ship fast enough, we need all hands on deck. It could be argued that this does not start with companies, nor governments, nor citizens individually. Rather, a substantial share of the responsibility rests with our educational institutions, primary and secondary. In particular, universities are educating citizens, future leaders in the public and private sector, and providing the basic and applied research required to make the transition faster.
In a recent conversation with my colleague Mark Roseland, a Professor at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, we discussed emerging trends in university governance for sustainability.
In my early days researching and teaching sustainable entrepreneurship (starting in 2001 at IE in Madrid), sustainability was a topic mostly discussed in a handful of schools of environment and occasionally emerging in other disciplines including public policy and business schools. Since then sustainability has gone much more mainstream and now, just like in the private sector, you can find a lot of greenwashing in academic circles as well.
So as a mini research project, I decided to explore the emerging trends in how major universities around the world are elevating sustainability from a governance perspective.
Vice Provost of Sustainability
The most promising nascent approach to making sustainability a credible and meaningful university-wide priority is the emergence of a new role, Vice-Provost of Sustainability. From what I can tell, Yale University was the first to announce a promotion, Julie Zimmerman, for this role in the US just a few months ago. Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, Trinity College Dublin recently promoted Professor Jane Stout to become Vice Provost of Biodiversity and Climate Action.
One of the most prestigious global Research 1 universities, the University of Michigan, has entered the fray, announcing its intention to hire its own Vice Provost of Sustainability and Climate Action. A smaller neighboring university in the suburbs of Detroit, Oakland University, just published their search for an Associate Provost of Sustainability as well.
These were all of the Vice Provost level roles I could find globally although there are likely a handful more that I either could not find or have not yet been announced. From a cursory review of these positions and the holders, it seems all of them come from an academic and peer-reviewed research role in sustainability and they all have Ph.D.s. Furthermore, they all report directly to the Provost and have some level of responsibility to oversee and guide sustainability across the entire university spanning research, teaching, partnerships and impact.
Executive Directors of Sustainability
The closest role frequently slightly below the weight and governance authority of a Vice Provost is Executive Director of Sustainability which often oversees an Office of Sustainability. Several universities around the world have this role. From what I can tell, sometimes the holder has a Ph.D. and prior research experience and other times they have been administrators in academia, and or may even come from private practice with a sustainability background.
Sustainability Working Groups
A very common approach by universities in terms of seeking to create a more comprehensive sustainability program has been to form working groups composed of sustainability researchers and staff, and occasionally students as well, representing multiple faculties. In most cases from my observation, they also report to the Provost, but unlike the Vice Provost and ED roles, there is often not a single person responsible for vision formulation and execution, nor does the working group have authority to implement interdisciplinary university initiatives. Instead they appear to be more often a type of advisory board, being the eyes and ears of the campus community with a pathway to inform the Provost’s priorities. While this is by far not a comprehensive list, some of the universities with such a structure include: NYU, University of Texas, Austin and the University of Arkansas.
VP/Director of Sustainable Facilities
Outside of early faculty pioneers in different faculties who were pursuing sustainability as their own intellectual passion, facilities has tended to be where much of the early campus-wide sustainability positions were housed. It is very common to this day to find VPs or Directors or managers of sustainable facilities who report directly to the overall Director of Facilities. Increasingly the Directors themselves have strong sustainability orientations. While this role is essential in ensuring the university walks the walk in its own buildings, infrastructure, transport, energy and waste initiatives, it is no longer sufficient for a major research university to house their entire sustainability strategy within facilities.
Interdisciplinary Centers and Schools in Sustainability
A step up from relying on individual faculty to independently pursue their own deep but narrow sustainability research is to form interdisciplinary research centers and schools. This has been a trend over the past decade in many institutions of higher learning, and one that I applaud. Years ago I brought students from EADA Business School in Barcelona to visit Singapore with a particular focus on immersing ourselves in the smart and sustainable city strategies, research and innovation being developed at their two major, leading universities, Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore. Both of these research universities have multiple interdisciplinary centers exploring everything from nature-based climate solutions to healthy and sustainable cities.
It is worth noting that universities who have embraced high levels of governance for sustainability are likely to have multiple additional initiatives including a strong focus on sustainable facilities and their own interdisciplinary sustainability research centers. For example, the University of Michigan houses the Graham Sustainability Institute which itself has a university-wide remit for research, teaching and impact.
As an optimist by nature, I do believe humanity still has time to make the course correction necessary to enable human thriving for future generations. I may be biased given my decades of experience as a student and later as a sustainability researcher in universities on both sides of the Atlantic, but I also believe universities will play one of the most critical roles in advancing research and innovation, shifting mindsets and transforming how we can live, work and play in ways that are aligned with our inclusivity, sustainability and climate targets.
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) launched in 2005 with the ambition to encourage universities to embrace sustainability in education and to support them on their journey through conferences, their own benchmarking tool (STARS), mentorship and awards. AASHE has nearly 1,000 global members now and could be a good place to start if your university wishes to climb the ladder helping to research and educate the next generation of solutions and leaders to align our collective action to return to sustainable planetary boundaries.
About the Author
Dr. Cohen started his career with Accenture before obtaining a PhD. in strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado. Afterwards, he pursued a hybrid career as a researcher, professor and founder in the sustainable innovation, smart cities and climate change arena. Dr. Cohen has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in these fields in leading journals in entrepreneurship, strategy and sustainability and has also authored three books, including Climate Capitalism, and contributed smart cities and climate strategy thought leadership to Fast Company, CoinDesk and GITEX Impact among others. He has co-founded 6 companies (usually as CEO) in green buildings and neighbourhoods, smart and green cities, carbon origination and mobility. Iomob, his latest venture incorporated in 2018, has focused on accelerating the adoption of green mobility through enterprise and end users (B2B2C).