Sustainable development and universities: case studies and discussions

By | March 14, 2015

HEIs as catalysts for the expansion of SD a local, societal and global level: Case Studies & Discussions

This is the final article written for this blog by Sorina Antonescu.

(This final article has attracted some interesting debate. Please see ‘Comments’ at the bottom of this post and join the discussion).

See an overview of the articles here >>

Interconnectedness as the key to achieving transformative change

YSJ_campusIn the previous issue, it was established that in order to adopt and implement a sustainability ethos across the university curricula, campus operations, research and outreach, HEIs have the moral and practical obligation to model SD as a fully integrated system. This would follow a top-down approach where a strong and committed university leadership appoints a select SD committee to overlook and produce educational material that empowers lecturers and faculties to incorporate with relative ease the concept of SD in their respective teaching domains. This, coupled with outside classroom experience of SD achieved through campus restructuring, would raise student awareness of SD through practices that would make them alert to their individual waste generation and resource consumption. One proposed solution entailed undertaking SD induction courses, similarly to the academic integrity tutorials which students are required to complete at the start of their undergraduate programme. The difference would lie in the fact that unlike the one-off academic integrity tutorial session, the SD course would be an on-going, compulsory module. It would bear the same weight as the discipline oriented introductory modules which are often given priority to enable students to progress to their next academic year. These activities would be carried out in an environment that allows the flow of information back to the top management, with lecturers, administrative staff and students being able to provide constructive feedback, ask for further assistance, give advice or offer suggestions. The system would also allow for inter-departmental collaboration and information exchange at all levels, in order to facilitate and help speed up the SD process. The university leadership would be in tune with the success rate of their policies based on specially developed SD measurements. Read more >>


4 thoughts on “Sustainable development and universities: case studies and discussions

  1. John Carlisle

    I have enjoyed, and found very useful, the four articles. The thorough consideration of all the parameters, and the examples and mini-case studies are also very helpful for someone attempting to bring about change. However, I have one big objection in this latest paper, i.e. the proposal that: “A number of reward schemes would be put in place to motivate and encourage staff to act proactively and in line with recycling schemes. These could take the form of financial incentives, additional pay, tax levies, additional holidays and/or formal recognition within their team. University employees would be encouraged to designate another member of staff for an award similarly to the ones encountered in the corporate sector, where employees setting an example in their field are identified and recognised though the ‘Employee of the month’ scheme and rewarded accordingly at staff gatherings.”
    Why attempt to extrinsically motivate what can only be accomplished by sincere, deep, intrinsic motivation? This is the language of neo-liberalism, where the assumption is that human beings will not really do anything unless they are bribed or coerced by such things as incentives or ranking. It is these kind of policies that are destroying the NHS, corrupted banks and de-motivated employees across the world. It also militates against team-work and cooperation.
    I beg you to remove this extract.

  2. Sorina Antonescu

    Dear John,

    I am happy to hear that you found my articles useful and informative. Regarding your objection to the part you highlighted,I agree with you and I can appreciate your view. The aim to trigger system- wide behavioural changes must ultimately stem from an inner desire and determination to work towards a society that is environmentally, socially and economically responsible. However.
    Throughout my brief research ( I say ‘brief’ as there is always room for more investigation into the matter and one can never completely reach an overall understanding of all the major issues surrounding the SD field) I found that change cannot happen all of a sudden and disconnected from the manner in which society is being run at the moment. We are talking about generations of intellectuals, politicians, businessmen that have been indoctrinated with neoliberalist dogmas and market fundamentalist principles. To simply reject the system we currently find ourselves in and move on, is simply impossible in my view. While radical change is needed and absolutely necessary, to do so in conflict with the system that our modern societies function by is destined to fail.
    As I said, I agree with you in the sense that rewarding individuals and providing them with financial and other type of incentives is in line with our current politico- economic systems. Yet, my advice, if I may, is to think of it as a starting point. To enable people, who first and foremost must ensure a living above all, to adopt a sustainable mindset is no small feat. Sustainability is almost the completely opposite of today’s consumerist world. For example, while sustainability implies collective work and collaboration, modern capitalist societies encourage the pursuit of self interest and self advancement in what is being perceived as an increasingly individualistic existence. In other words it implies for people to work collaboratively at a local level, encouraging communities to work together, strengthening unions, getting people to basically re-connect and find those long lost human values where mutual help and assistance is vital, while lessening the need for immediate material gratification.This is probably the biggest challenge of all as we’re constantly being subconsciously coerced into settling into a lifestyle dictated by advertisements, billboards, highways, outlets, fashion, media and so on. The list is a long one.
    Adopting a sustainable mindset also implies learning to think of the world not as an subject of our desires and needs that can infinitely provide for us, but rather that we are the subjects bound to adapt to an increasingly finite and fragile life-support system that is being eroded with each generation that comes and goes. In direct opposition to this, our modern lifestyle dictates infinite bettering of our material wealth fuelled by constant economic growth. My question to all this is, to what end?
    So yes, you are completely right to say that our neoliberalist era is rather a dystopian reality of an utopian dream that is forced on us by vested interests. But in order to move out of that and come up with an alternative, you have to get people motivated, involved and eager to take action.Yet, we’re talking about people with families, worries and priorities that need consideration. Now, as human beings we act in relation to what affects us most and what is immediate. So turning back to the context of SD and HEIs, academic and administrative staff will primarily be motivated by factors that immediately affect their day to day existence, and only later will a more in-depth understanding will start kicking in.( At least that’s my hope!) Getting people involved is a first step. The next would be to progressively and gradually make the new system become the norm. Once this happens then sustainability ceases to be a novelty and becomes the status quo. At this point, it won’t be the case that staff would cease to be rewarded but rather that it will become a way of thinking and acting accordingly and that people will naturally wish to maintain the new system regardless of incentives. Once individuals start seeing the benefits of the new system, I’d like to think that they’d be inherently motivated to continue the practice which would then follow naturally with other innovative ways of sustainable development, not just within the university premises but reaching into local communities and beyond to regional and national levels.
    Universities as institutions are powerful organisations with the ability to imbue into their users the necessary mindset to start a silent revolution within themselves and only then externalise. But change is unavoidably a gradual and progressive step that must , at first, reach people by means that will get them to respond, adopt the necessary measures and take action. Only at this point, once they had a taste of the alternative will people turn it into a way of being than a way of doing things if you like. I am by no means saying that this is a process that will form part of a sustainable mindset, but what I am saying is that it can act as a first step towards getting people to reach based on what matters most to their immediate circumstances.

    1. John Carlisle

      Dear Sorina
      Thank you for your thorough response.
      My demurral is not about the point you are making, but about the change strategy. I agree with all your (anguished) observations about what Foucault would call the carceralisation of universities, i.e. they become prisons by the type and application of their governance policies. Foucault originally applied the analogy to schools as, at the time of his writing (1975) HEIs were renowned for their academic freedom. This has long passed for most academic institutions thanks to the managerialism encouraged by the central government, and the lure of the command and control style it offered the apparatchiks who now occupy many top management posts.The well publicised damning critiques of Essex University by Professor Marina Warner(London Review of Books, March 19), and of Exeter College, Oxford, Queen Marys, London,etc. catalysed mainly by the punitive power of the Research Excellence Framework, give testimony to the size of the task.
      However,you cannot use the language and technology of oppressor to bring about the change (Mandela). You need to change both the narrative and the system. A good example would be stop calling students or patients “customers”. That transfers them instantly into the economic realm and changes the narrative. To change the system you need to change the nature of demand – as every system delivers perfectly to the aim it was designed for. The aim of many HEIs has changed, to that, unfortunately, of typical neo-liberal capitalist structures,i.e. profit,economic growth, cost-cutting and huge emoluments for the top “management”. [Could someone please explain how a Finance Manager at a university could be paid more than a professor with a string of influential books, papers and a legacy of educated students? If they were working for Tesco or Shell I could accept it; but at a HEI?]
      All these are sustained by a sub-system of incentives that coerce or bribe to secure the acquiesence of the academics. If you “incentivise” the staff to achieve green goals then they will either the reject the morality of the challenge or achieve the aims FOR THE REWARD, not the higher aim. They are then corrupted, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the greater treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
      So, who can change the aim? Only the top management,or the student body if they successfully revolt; but look what happened at Manchester….The whole issue boils down to one of leadership and consciousness. I would be happy to discuss how this is achieved in my own experience as a change agent if you would like to continue the discussion.

      Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House

  3. Sorina Antonescu

    Dear John,

    I apologise for the late reply as I have had a busy couple of days, during which I also took the time to consider your view in more depth. Please find my take on all this below.

    I find once more that, while I completely agree and sympathize with your response, I find it challenging to align with what I dare say is almost a revolutionary change strategy. That this is the ideal situation, namely ‘to change both narrative and the system’ altogether, is an undeniable truth. Our current unsustainable economic system in conjunction with a predominantly right wing neoliberalist takeover of politics and a systematic erosion of civic awareness and action on behalf of ordinary citizens is worrisome. Society is tirelessly ‘dumbed down’ so to speak, and we’re taught to acquiesce to a set of values that envisions consumerism as a way to be, indeed the only way.

    Our governments do not produce citizens as much as they produce consumers in search for immediate material gratification or simply trying to overcome daily challenges that wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be there, if present governments would switch back to a focus on public policies designed to strengthen basic social services and infrastructure. But with regards to the former point, today’s ‘modern’ world resounds with individuals concerned more with acquiring the latest gadget, or staying in tune with the latest trend in fashion than interested in social justice which more so than often, ties in with environmental well-being and which inadvertently affects living standards across the board. My point in making these observations is that, rather than talking about the ‘carceralisation of universities’, I would expand this notion to society as a whole.

    As you well pointed out, assigning the label ‘customer’ to students and patients alike (and I am sure there are plentiful examples of similar cases in other domains) suggests that the neoliberalist capitalist dogma has infiltrated in all areas of society. However, I would be somewhat reluctant to apply the same treatment that Mandela pursued during the apartheid era. The environment experienced by the revolutionaries at the time required a forceful approach to root-out a racist, separatist and highly flawed system of governance. But that was triggered by the systematic subjection of the native inhabitants to harsh social, economic and political injustices. Drastic times called for drastic measures and I struggle to find areas of close comparison between Mandela’s system of thought which reflected the dire situation of apartheid years in South Africa, and the present western democracies, where there is relative social stability in spite of the widening gap between the rich minority and an increasingly impoverished population.

    I do see your point however. By not taking radical action to try a different means by which to get the academic and administrative staff motivated to implement a sustainable ethos in their teaching and university operations, it will not lead to a real shift in certain core values. These can include efforts at the community level and a genuine desire to live an existence that promotes environmental justice, economic sustainability and social equity. I believe there is an article that looks at Lund University and the major factors that led to the failure of some truly ambitious aims with regards to implementing sustainability across the university system. One of the major causes for their failure resided with the inability to motivate the staff long-term. I will refer you to the article as soon as I re-locate it for a more in-depth reading.

    I believe that the question which naturally arises at this point, if answered, would probably turn out to be a game changer. And as complex as the answer may ultimately be, the question itself is relatively straightforward. How do you get staff and students on the ground motivated enough to willingly develop, support and maintain a sustainable ethos within their working and studying environment, without immediate, short-term monetary incentives or formal recognition on behalf of colleagues and/or superiors, in a societal setting that remains stubbornly conservative in maintaining a neoliberal modus operandi?

    That is a thought that has been on my mind for some time and as yet, I have not been able to come up with any lucrative solutions. The steps to implement practical measures to help embed some of the principles of sustainable development in universities have long ceased to be a novelty. Yet, progress in that direction remains minimal aside from an increasing fossil fuel divestment movement, where some universities, like Oxford and Harvard for example, are surprisingly reluctant to engage in.

    I would be happy to hear what your take is on all of this and I am looking forward to a potential reply.

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