Video: The Triple Role of Universities in Sustainability Leadership

Universities in a Post-Corona World: The Triple Role in 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.

The Triple Role of Universities in Sustainability Leadership

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.

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 operations performance.

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.

Being an Example for 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 initiatives, which are usually focussed on environmental sustainability.

Let’s not forget that for achieving environmental sustainability its drivers must be in place: the social and economic perspective or in short, the triple bottom line: People, Profit, Planet.

A university has social sustainability 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. Social and economic sustainability 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.

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.

Finally, performance for environmental sustainability 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 the planet can be applied to every school, department and faculty, so they become part of the everyday business that gets monitored and reported upon.

Today Universities have an opportunity, 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 others, it is the only means”.