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Sustainability in HE

A concept that has been slowly gaining momentum over a period of more than 35 years, is Sustainability.  Currently we reside in United Nation’s 2002, Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2015), but what can I say that about Sustainability that has not already been said?


Vierderman, an educator in Sustainability paints what he calls an “unexceptional personal vision” for a world embracing Sustainability.  A peaceful, clean world where the environment does not harm the health of its inhabitants; where communities benefit and learn from their multi- ethnicity, multi- religiosity, age, class and other forms of diversity; where people live and enjoy their work with autonomy, benefits, and pay-equity; and where nations treat each other and their citizens with justice, fairness, and equity where power is used to enrich people. (2006, P19)  The italicized ‘people live’ is, however, underpinned I think by such a dominant paradigm of capitalism, globalization, materialism, and consumerism that it makes the tackling implementation as especially difficult, and no less so for businesses.


The goals for sustainability more often than not collide making the win-win-win virtually impossible. I was recently in a Malaysian Jungle asking myself just how does one balance effectively the need for tourism and the positive effect on some people’s jobs; with the damage this might be doing to the environment and the investment brought to it; with what seemed to me negative effect of the local Malaysians not seeing the benefits of this wealth going to only a few; and as one company had constructed something like 600 villas on the outskirts of the jungle, I also questioned what about with the animals and flora – who is looking out for their interests?


Simply stated, the full meaning of Sustainability is looking deeply into the balances between economic, environmental and social aspects of life, and frankly it might be just too much to handle and too sensitive for business’s to say “the way we are operating is not sustainable”, “production – please wind things back a bit”, or “Marketing – please convince the consumer only to buy the product if they really need it”.  When we consider the difficulty, business can be viewed as an actual barrier to achieving Sustainability (Crane and Matten, 2007; Springett, 2005). and many argue that the 1987 Brutland Report diluted the Sustainability agenda to a Sustainable Development agenda to such an extent that it is simply a ruse, a hijack, and a strategy to maintain the hegemony (Springett, 2005, Springett, 2005a; Egan et. al, 2006; ).   Where the economic agenda (the business case) dominates the environmental agenda which in turn dominates the social agenda.


This might be so, but in pragmatic terms, we live with this reality – do we really want some kind of revolution that leaves us all without jobs, without food on the table, without security?  Oh boy – then watch the social and environmental concerns get further pushed down the agenda as stability and politics shift higher.  One of my colleagues said “Sustainability is a journey not a destination”, and I believe that while governments, civil social organizations, and us as individuals can do much more – I believe optimistically that we are overall going on the right track, and we can do better!


For me, one area to varying degrees around the world we are failing is in organizations’ social responsibility to their employees.   I don’t mean at the extreme end of the scale i.e. forced labour, child labour, or lack of environmental health and safety systems etc. as that is pretty well monitored, but instead in the more mainstream areas of how organizations treat their staff.  Even the name, Human Resources tends to paint people as something that they can use, abuse and through away.  Through market forces, organizational politics, down-sizing, and out-sourcing are examples where organizations are treating people like they are a plastic component, machine, a building or commodity from the earth.  How did we let this happen?  People I know in many cases feel that they cannot voice their opinions openly, cannot challenge the status quo without the fear of a warning, or worse still losing their jobs for going against the dominant forces.  Perhaps Foucault was not far wrong where he describes the planet like a prison, it kind of feels that way sometimes.


What I would ask a company trying to innovate that wants to be the best in class, to tackle the challenges of our time while contributing towards sustainability.  It is – how can you realistically do this while their corporate values and culture remain such a formidable barrier.  We have all seen companies run leadership seminars and prepare value statements only to put them up on a wall and not live them!  Please, c-level managers – by coaching people to be the best they can be, by focusing attention on the real value to society,  and living the principles of Sustainability is the honourable way, perhaps the only way that your business will be here in 50 years…. So, maybe it is too hard to take these issues head on with business as individuals, but one form to help slowly break down the hegemony might be through Higher Education (Springett, 2005, Forrant and Silka, 2006), through educating our future leaders.


In my research proposal (0.4) I wrote that this subject was not in my own core text on the MBA at SBS, and I see that the Green League table supports my n=1 experience by not awarding neither a first, second or third class award to Strathclyde.  They have been ranked 121 out of 131 UK Universities ending up in the failed award category.  (This league table is created by http://peopleandplanet.org/ a student network campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment.)  I have not yet checked into their credibility, nevertheless, this probably will give the David Livingston Centre for Sustainability at Strathclyde a boost to tackle the barriers in higher education towards sustainability.  Here are some of the barriers and my solutions as I currently see them:


1. Universities are entrenched in the positivist/liberal pluralist tradition of the sciences where they are better suited for creating the bodies of knowledge of the ‘parts’ through the studying of the various disciplines e.g. engineering, law, business, arts, social; when Sustainability is actually about the ‘whole’ (Vierderman 2006).


For my own research this fact that no sizeable body of knowledge exists for Sustainability is why experimental learning innovations (coaching & Web 2.0) can be applied.  The part verses the whole can be tackled by bringing in students into the virtual classroom in a cross-disciplined and global manner i.e. engineering; computer science; philosophy; political science; social sciences; and business; from all over the world.


2. For many sciences, the fact that they have been objective and value free has always been one of the marks of academic knowledge, yet when we look at Sustainability closely it is totally value laden (Egan et. al, 2006).  Instead of shying away from the conversation altogether do we need to bring these values discussion out on the table – and most importantly put out there the mission we are heading upon?


The dialectic/coaching approach to my research is all about the values discussion, but will not only hang on this conversation; it is intended through service based learning that students will be expected to implement their solutions.  Of course, there will be the feeling that business students particularly will be biting the hand that feeds them, but working through this reality, the emancipation, agency, politics and dealing with trade-offs will be part of the benefit of the learning elective.


3. The direction of higher education graduate student pedagogy has moved from individual learning to group learning, from the individually competitive to group/social collaboration.  This in itself is regarded as beneficial, but can it still go further?  My experience was that each semester classes and groups come together to learn, research, write papers, and do exams.  The issue for me here is why do they always start at zero?


This approach is unsustainable and wasteful (Lowry and Flohr, 2006), hence my idea to use Wiki Web 2.0 technology to re-use and re-cycle ideas from one semester to the next, so that we are not re-creating the wheel, but creating a body of knowledge that can be used across all disciplines.


So at the heart of this research is my thesis that using experimental technology (Coaching/Web 2.0) for learning we can change values of students, which leads on to previous research that along with experiential learning we can change behaviour, which ultimately proves a new model that Higher Education can help society move forward on our journey towards sustainable business practices.  Over the next little while I will be investigating what values and values theories underpin Sustainability, and what constitutes a value shift.


So when all was said, did I add anything new to the Sustainability conversation?  Probably not, but what do you think?  I would love to hear from you.


References for this Blog:


Crane, A. & Matten, D., (2007). Business Ethics Second., Oxford University Press.


Egan, D., Gray, V., Kaufman, W., Montrie, C., (2006). ‘The Role of Humanities and Social Sciences in Education for Sustainable Development’, in Forrant, R., and Silka, L., Eds Inside and Out: Universities and Education for Sustainable Development, Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.


Lowry, L., and Flohr, J., (2006). ‘Strategies Used to Embed Concepts of Sustainable Development in the Curriculum’, in Forrant, R., and Silka, L., Eds Inside and Out: Universities and Education for Sustainable Development, Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.


Springett, D., (2005). ‘Education for sustainability’ in the business studies curriculum: a call for a critical agenda. Business Strategy and the Environment, 14(3), 146-159. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/bse.447.


Springett, D., (2005a). ‘Structural limits to sustainable development: managers and progressive agency’ International Journal Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol 1. Nos ½, pp. 127-152


Vierderman, S., (2006). ‘Can Universities Contribute to Sustainable Development?’, in Forrant, R., and Silka, L., Eds Inside and Out: Universities and Education for Sustainable Development, Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.





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