Sustainability in Higher Education: Organizational Factors Influencing Campus Environmental Performance and Leadership

Shriberg, M. P. (2002)

Despite activists' calls for higher education to lead society on a sustainable path, there is little systematic guidance available for campus sustainability advocates and scholars. To address this research deficiency, this study identifies organizational factors which determine why and how some campuses are emerging as sustainability leaders while most campuses lag. To develop this framework, this study surveys U.S.  (four-year) colleges and universities which have signed the Talloires Declaration on Sustainability (as of April 2001), compares environmental efforts at two public Midwestern universities, and assesses the University of Michigan's sustainability initiatives.

The results indicate that collaborative decision making structures, progressive/liberal political orientation, a collegial atmosphere, and image-seeking behavior represent strong positive conditions for success in campus sustainability. Initiatives are most successful when driven by diverse stakeholders - with the support of top leaders - acting in a coordinated manner and capitalizing on or creating a "spark". Change agents are most effective by appealing to personal ethics at low levels in the organizational hierarchy while appealing to institutional strategic positioning (e.g., reputational and recruitment benefits) at higher levels. Campus sustainability initiatives encounter many barriers, most of which are linked to the low priority of environmental issues on the campus agenda and are compounded by a lack of coordination between and among advocates and key constituencies. Current efforts tend to be initial and piecemeal, but strong efforts in the future will need to be coordinated, comprehensive and institutionalized. The concept and term "sustainability" has the potential to motivate stakeholders toward this long-term, systemic approach. However, the current usage of "sustainability" is largely restricted to ecological issues (thus neglecting interrelated social and economic issues), and is often controversial and confusing.

This study - which is designed to form a theoretical and empirical basis for the field of campus sustainability - points to many areas for future research, including systems modeling of environmental organizational change and the influence of external conditions, leadership and interpersonal relations on campus environmentalism. The implications are limited by social desirability bias, nonresponse bias, an "insider" approach to campus sustainability, and the nonrandom and limited institutional sample used in surveying and case studies.

Pedagogical Area
  • education for sustainability
Outcome Area
  • stewardship behavior
  • school change
Participant Area
  • student
  • school
Age Area
  • undergraduate