International cohort gathers to discuss the future of sustainability in higher education

MIT Office of Sustainability

International cohort gathers to discuss the future of sustainability in higher education

The Transatlantic Symposium on Sustainable Development in Higher Education, held earlier this month at MIT, convened an international cohort of university-level researchers, faculty, and staff to share empirical findings, insights, and ideas on the role of sustainability in higher education and the obligations of universities in responding to the climate crisis. Cohosted by MIT Director of Sustainability Julie Newman on behalf of the MIT Office of Sustainability in collaboration with Professor Walter Leal and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Research and Transfer Centre, the symposium featured  100 research presentations and two plenary sessions, on topics including successful models of integrating sustainability across the curriculum, eco-centered design strategies, framing climate justice, to net zero strategies, climate resiliency modeling and climate governance structures—just to name a few. 

Critically, presentations did not focus on challenges solved, but rather work in progress as attendees united over shared challenges and opportunities for change. “We are not sharing best practices, but a collection of human stories of us struggling with these issues,” shared Wendy Purcell of Rutgers University during her session, Advancing Sustainable Development: Transformative Higher Education. “These are stories of progress, not a final destination because none of us have arrived there yet.”  

As presentations covered a broad swath of topics, many also returned to the big question of the most effective role of higher education in sustainability and climate action. “We are calling for a complete rethinking of universities, how we teach, invest, and interact with our environment to foster this radical change we need to address these challenges,” said Camille Washington-Ottombre of Smith College at the opening plenary session. Over the following days, attendees shared ways they were rethinking climate justice at their institutions.

Centering efforts in climate justice
Climate justice was a recurring theme of the symposium, with several presentations grappling with the role institutions play in supporting climate justice and a just transition. In her plenary presentation, A Framework for Climate Justice Action Planning, Washington-Ottombre focused on rethinking university approaches to climate justice. “Our approach to climate justice needs to be transformative, looking at the system holistically and, at its roots of injustice,” she shared. She related that climate justice action planning is the next frontier of campus sustainability. As such, campus sustainability “tools” such as professional networks, commitments, and sustainability reporting tools need to be reinvented. 

For Guillermo Palau Salvador of Universitat Politècnica de València, improving university pedagogy to focus on climate justice is essential to supporting students working on sustainability challenges. In his presentation, Driving Just Transitions within Higher Education, Salvador shared that changing the way students approach sustainability challenges can impact the factors they consider in solutions. By engaging in a climate justice-centered approach to challenges, students were encouraged to rely on collective narratives and the connection with nature, the past, and the future in devising solutions. Salvador shared that while working through this lens, students began to consider factors like equity and social issues as they grappled with sustainability challenges in classes.   

The power of students
Student learning outcomes factored prominently into many of the presentations as researchers shared how they were addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) in coursework, leveraging student efforts, and exploring approaches to sustainability fieldwork. Kassahun Weldermariam of University of Gothenburg shared how his work focused on reviewing university courses to see which contained sustainability lessons, or could, regardless of the discipline. In his presentation, Sustainability Labelling of Courses and Study programs – Experiences, Dilemmas and Possible Way Forward, Waldermariam shared that not only are efforts focused on reviewing course materials, but also working with professors to identify opportunities to include sustainability curriculum in all subjects, in order to provide students with a sustainability-centered education, regardless of major. 

In their presentation, Exploring Sustainable Development from a Social-Ecological Perspective: A TriNation Study, Jan Brown of Liverpool John Moores University and Kent Williams of Dalhousie University shared their research on the student perspective of the UN SDGs which found that students often did not relate to the goals or struggled with understanding where they could take local action. “We found students saw the SDGs as something to learn, but not necessarily something to take and apply to their community,” Williams shared. By understanding the roadblocks to action, Brown and Williams were able to devise new ways to communicate the SDGs that invited students in and connected to community sustainability impact at the local level. 

Campuses as a test bed for change
Many presenters focused on the ways in which they are using their campus and coursework to explore real-world sustainability solutions. Matthias Held of Hochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd shared how he is using course projects to identify sustainable offerings for common products. In his session, Eco-centered Design – Academic Projects for Efficiency, Consistency and Sufficiency, Held presented a new model of the material flows of the geosphere for the identification of potentials for improvement. He then shared that he invites his students to create what he has called “sustainability through design.” Students are tasked with developing products that consider efficiency, sufficiency, and consistency to create items that use fewer resources or are more easily repaired than their current on-market counterparts. 

For Kelly Ashcraft-Pearce of Allegheny College, the suburban-rural campus grounds of her university provide a testbed for establishing and preserving wildlife habitats in support of biodiversity. In her presentation on Expanding Sustainability to Include our Non-Human Partners: The Role of College Campuses in Supporting Wildlife Habitat, Ashcraft-Pearce shared how she worked with students and faculty to track plant and animal life on campus to develop a model for sustainable land management and suburban wildlife support. “Universities can be powerful agents of conservation and biodiversity,” she shared. “But we do not always harness that power as there are so many different aspects of climate action to focus on.” 

Leela Velautham, postdoctoral researcher with the MIT Office of Sustainability and MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, also shared findings from her research at MIT on perceptions of net zero pledges taken by universities. In her presentation, Differential Perceptions of Reputational Risk Concerning a Higher Education Institute’s Net-Zero Pledge, Velautham shared the difference in perceptions of these types of pledges based on one’s role at a university as well as the importance of education and framing around net zero pledges.  

Looking ahead
While the symposium concluded after three days, it could be seen as the beginning of what’s next for the international cohort. “We invited everyone here in large part to help us imagine the future,” shared Newman. “We did that and formed many great connections and partnerships that will help to take us to the next step of rethinking the role of universities in sustainability and climate action.”  The outcome of the forum was the launch of the European-North America Sustainability Research Consortium, which the MIT Office of Sustainability is now a co-sponsor. The purpose of the newly launched consortium is to “foster cooperation, joint events, and joint research projects on matters related to sustainable development between North American and European scientists and organizations, leading to publications in peer-reviewed journals.”

Anyone wishing to learn more about each presentation can look to North American and European Perspectives on Sustainability in Higher Education, which features the research behind each presentation and is to be published by Springer Nature in 2024.

See photos from the event.

back to top