Mobilizing the power of higher education to tackle the grand challenge of sustainability: Lessons from novel initiatives


Introduction: The need for sustainable development, which seeks to improve human well-being while protecting the planet’s life support systems, poses complex challenges. Regardless of whether these problems arise in the context of energy, food, or water supply, climate change, urbanization, or other pressing concerns, they involve interconnected economic, sociocultural and environmental components. These sustainability challenges also present unique leadership and research opportunities for higher education. How can universities respond? At one level, academia has already risen to this challenge. In fact, an entirely new field—sustainability science—was launched in 2001 via a landmark paper in Science (Kates et al., 2001), and over 20,000 scientific papers have been published since 1974 that include the words “sustainability” or “sustainable development” in their titles (Bettencourt and Kaur, 2011). Given the complex and stubborn nature of sustainability problems, however, many critics have argued that the traditional academy lacks an effective institutional structure and culture for accelerating progress towards sustainability (Hoffman et al., 2015; van der Leeuw et al., 2012; Whitmer et al., 2010). To counter these concerns, a number of universities have launched bold new initiatives to tackle sustainability problems. In the U.S. alone, recent investment in such programs exceeds $500 million. In addition to their focus on specific sustainability problems, these initiatives are serving as “laboratories” in which to learn how higher education can become an effective societal partner in addressing a wide range of sustainability challenges. Our purpose in this commentary is to highlight some common themes and instructive insights that are emerging from our experiences leading such initiatives in highly diverse university settings. We draw on our presentations at the “What are the Roles of Knowledge Institutions in Sustainability?” symposium at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS symposium brought together for the first time the leaders of sustainability initiatives at six diverse US academic institutions.[1] We were joined by an eminent audience that included Robert Kates, senior author of the seminal paper framing the emerging field of sustainability science, and Anthony Cortese, co-founder of the nation’s largest network of universities committed to sustainability. Our commentary focuses on five emerging lessons that reflect the challenges in the design and implementation of six different sustainability programs. We augment our views with those of senior leaders (e.g. chancellors, presidents, and provosts) at our respective institutions, which provides a broader basis for reflecting on these lessons. Because these shared insights emerged despite our very different institutions—dissimilar in history, organization, size, and resources—they are potentially relevant for many other institutions seeking to grow the capacity and societal value of sustainability research programs.

Publication Type
Journal Article
David D. Hart
James L. Buizer
Jonathan A. Foley
Lewis E. Gilbert
Lisa J. Graumlich
Anne R. Kapuscinski
David R. Peart
Linda Silka, University of Maine
Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene

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