Universities in a Post-Corona World: The Triple Role of Sustainability Leadership

Universities moved their lectures and exams online and asked their staff to work from home. They closed student accommodation, catering outlets and library shops. Universities have the reputation for being slow to change directions like oil tankers but dealing with the effects of Corona has shown that universities can turn as quickly as speedboats.

While dealing with Corona, climate change and the sustainability agenda have not gone away.

Universities are called to play a fundamental role in the global effort to achieve the SDGs, the UN sustainability development goals. This call includes not only education, but also working in partnership with many, to design and deploy innovative sustainability solutions.

Learning from the changes demanded by the Corona crisis, universities now have an opportunity to use the momentum and sense of urgency and apply them to advance global sustainability.

The Triple Role of Universities in Sustainability Leadership

Universities are called to play a fundamental role in the global effort to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. This call encompasses not only the provision of education, but also working in multi-sector partnership to design and deploy innovative sustainability solutions.

Leadership in Teaching Sustainability

Firstly, universities are regarded as playing an increasingly important role in helping students become responsible and active citizens, with a clear vision of the importance and future challenges of sustainability. A Master in Operations and Supply Chain management programme may include teaching and project work of how to tackle issues such as sustainable operations strategy and sustainable operations performance. Business schools may teach how to measure performance for quality, speed, dependability and if sustainability goals are being met.

Leadership in Researching Sustainability

Secondly, there is the research agenda. Many faculties and schools pursue sustainability research programmes. Several funding opportunities are aimed at researching sustainability enhancing technology and processes. An example is a European funded cross-border and interdisciplinary project called Dwr Uisce. It is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and Bangor University, aimed at water sustainability and energy consumption reduction. In this project engineering, environmental, geography and management researchers from many countries work together with a network of industry and water authorities.

Leadership in “Living” Sustainability – Integrating Sustainability in University Activities

The third and possibly not so well recognised leadership role is that of being an example for translating sustainability goals into action.
Many universities have put in place sustainability officers, committees, and focus groups that promote and coordinate sustainability initiatives, which are usually focused on environmental sustainability. Let’s not forget that for achieving environmental sustainability its drivers must be in place: the social and economic sustainability perspective or in short, the triple bottom line: People, Profit, Planet. A university is recognised as socially sustainable when its community is healthy, engaged and has fair and equitable practices. Given these preconditions, a highly engaged university community is in the position to explore and implement economic sustainability for present and future generations. The two sustainability perspectives are necessary to achieve the efficient use of materials and resources, reduce the carbon footprint and enhance environmental sustainability.

The structural components of sustainability officers and committees can be augmented by integrating sustainability processes into the day-to-day university operations, so that sustainability accountability is not resting on the shoulders of a few but becomes everybody’s responsibility. One way is the integration of sustainability goals into a university wide performance management system.

Here is an example: Irish public sector institutions, including publicly funded universities, are required to have a performance management system in place. Performance Management is about creating a culture that encourages the continuous improvement of business processes and of individuals’ skills, behaviour and contributions.

Applying the government mandated performance system and including elements aimed at improving social, economic and environmental sustainability is a way to integrate sustainability into all university operational, support and administrative processes, in addition to teaching and research.

For example, a performance goal for social sustainability performance could be improving staff wellbeing. Indicators such as absenteeism rate, wellbeing and engagement survey results could monitor performance and progress.

The economic sustainability perspective is possibly the most advanced in terms of measuring performance. Universities have financial accounting systems in place that also assess energy and water costs.

The environmental performance and accountability can include indicators such as paper use, photo copying and printing costs, waste removal costs, indicators also strongly linked to economic performance.

All three performance targets for people, profit and planet can be applied to every school, department, so they become part of the everyday business that gets monitored and reported upon.

The targets can be part of every individual’s performance agenda. University leaders with staff responsibility can focus on absenteeism rates and have regular check-ins with their staff to support their social, physical and mental health. Employee’s without staff responsibility, (e.g. front-line staff, analysts) can focus on current sustainability issues by partaking in sustainability training and development events, like GDPR updates, health and safety training and fire drills.
In addition, reporting on sustainability progress can be a standing agenda item of all staff and management meetings. As the adage says: “What gets measured, gets done”.

The Way Forward

Universities have demonstrated enormous agility responding to the Corona crises. Many universities have a sustainability teaching and research agenda. Operations management courses teach students about developing and implementing sustainable operations strategies product and service performance. Engineering, Biology and Zoology departments and institutes research and develop new sustainable technologies and processes.
Universities have an opportunity now, use the “Corona – Momentum” and live what they teach and research on their campuses, by integrating sustainability goals into everybody’s day-to day actions.
As Albert Einstein says: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means”.


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Dwr-Uisce. (2020). Energy Recovery in Water Services. https://www.dwr-uisce.eu/.
Government of Ireland. (2017). Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/432f422-public-service-stability-agreement-2018-2020/.
Slack, N., Brandon-Jones, A., & Johnston, R.. (2016). Operations Management, 8th Edition. London: Pearson.
United Nations. (2020). UN Sustainability Development Goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/.
World Health Organisation. (2010). WHO Healthy Workplace Framework and Model. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation.