ArticlePDF Available


Universities have an important role in moving society towards a more sustainable future. However, this will require us to repurpose universities, reorienting and refocusing the different university domains (education, research, campus, and outreach) towards sustainability. The governance structures and processes used to embed sustainability into the activities and operations of the institution are critical to achieving the required transformation. Our current university systems which are seen as contributing to socio-ecological system unsustainability are resilient to change due to slow variables such as organisational and sector-wide prevailing paradigms and culture. Therefore, to repurpose a university requires us to destabilise our prevailing system, crossing a threshold into a new stable system of a 'sustainable university' across all its domains. This paper utilises an adaptation of Biggs et al. (2012) resilience principles for the governance of social-ecological systems to provide a framework to consider aspects of university governance for sustainability that can be utilised to repurpose universities towards sustainability, and destabilize unsustainable elements of the system. This paper draws out examples relating to sustainability governance within universities with regards to the four principles of (i) managing diversity and redundancy, (ii) managing connectivity, (iii) managing slow variables and feedbacks, and (iv) encouraging learning and experimentation within the context of complex adaptive systems. In this article, we have shown that using resilience in a non-normative way is possible (to decrease resilience of an unsustainable system), and that it can also be valuable to help understand how to shift organisational governance towards a particular end-state (in this case, university governance that advances sustainability). This paper provides an example of how to operationalise resilience principles of relevance to the resilience literature as well as providing a practical framework to guide higher education institution governance for sustainability.
published: 27 August 2021
doi: 10.3389/frsus.2021.674210
Frontiers in Sustainability | 1August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Edited by:
Victoria Hurth,
University of Cambridge,
United Kingdom
Reviewed by:
Wim Lambrechts,
Open University of the
Netherlands, Netherlands
Iain Stewart,
Royal Scientific Society, Jordan
Zoe P. Robinson
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Sustainable Organizations,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Sustainability
Received: 28 February 2021
Accepted: 19 July 2021
Published: 27 August 2021
Robinson ZP and Laycock
Pedersen R (2021) How to Repurpose
the University: A Resilience Lens on
Sustainability Governance.
Front. Sustain. 2:674210.
doi: 10.3389/frsus.2021.674210
How to Repurpose the University: A
Resilience Lens on Sustainability
Zoe P. Robinson 1
*and Rebecca Laycock Pedersen 2
1Institute for Sustainable Futures/School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, Keele University, Staffordshire,
United Kingdom, 2Department of Strategic Sustainable Development, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden
Universities have an important role in moving society towards a more sustainable
future. However, this will require us to repurpose universities, reorienting and refocusing
the different university domains (education, research, campus, and outreach) towards
sustainability. The governance structures and processes used to embed sustainability
into the activities and operations of the institution are critical to achieving the required
transformation. Our current university systems which are seen as contributing to
socio-ecological system unsustainability are resilient to change due to slow variables
such as organisational and sector-wide prevailing paradigms and culture. Therefore,
to repurpose a university requires us to destabilise our prevailing system, crossing a
threshold into a new stable system of a ‘sustainable university’ across all its domains.
This paper utilises an adaptation of Biggs et al. (2012) resilience principles for the
governance of social-ecological systems to provide a framework to consider aspects
of university governance for sustainability that can be utilised to repurpose universities
towards sustainability, and destabilize unsustainable elements of the system. This
paper draws out examples relating to sustainability governance within universities with
regards to the four principles of (i) managing diversity and redundancy, (ii) managing
connectivity, (iii) managing slow variables and feedbacks, and (iv) encouraging learning
and experimentation within the context of complex adaptive systems. In this article,
we have shown that using resilience in a non-normative way is possible (to decrease
resilience of an unsustainable system), and that it can also be valuable to help understand
how to shift organisational governance towards a particular end-state (in this case,
university governance that advances sustainability). This paper provides an example
of how to operationalise resilience principles of relevance to the resilience literature as
well as providing a practical framework to guide higher education institution governance
for sustainability.
Keywords: social-ecological resilience, resilience principles, higher education, education for sustainable
development, sustainability governance, universities
Higher Education Contributions to Sustainability
Universities have an important role in moving society towards sustainability. Universities educate
our world leaders (Jones et al., 2010), yet the lack of significant improvement in many of the world’s
sustainability challenges serves to feed the critique that our current higher education systems simply
perpetuate “unsustainability” through, amongst others, uncritically reproducing the norms or our
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
unsustainable present (Orr, 2001; Sterling, 2001). Despite
the myriad international and national initiatives which have
served to increase the momentum of Education for Sustainable
Development (ESD) in universities (see Michelsen, 2016 for a
review) there remains debate about the need for reorientation
and transformation of the current system (e.g., Sterling, 2001,
2013; Jucker, 2014) vs. advances which can occur within, and be
steered and “nudged” by our current neoliberal and marketised
university system (Bessant et al., 2015), and the extent to which
the rhetoric of the role of universities in contributing to a more
sustainable future is being met by action (Jones et al., 2010).
Universities are complex organisations (Sterling, 2013;
Thomas, 2016) with equally complex forces shaping the
higher education environment, including globalisation,
commercialisation and corporatisation (Bessant et al., 2015).
University activity can be split into four different “domains” of
activity—the campus, research, education and outreach. Each of
these domains has the potential to contribute to sustainability
(Bessant et al., 2015; Niedlich et al., 2020a) in different and
also interlinked ways. The “campus” domain has historically
seen the most focus and progress through improvements in
environmental management (Sterling and Scott, 2008), with
more latterly, focus on the role of the domains of education,
research and outreach in driving sustainability within and
from universities (Fadeeva and Mochizuki, 2010; Barth and
Rieckmann, 2016).
Important also to the complexity of the university are the
missions of the university. Teaching and research are considered
the first and second missions, respectively. The “third mission”
is articulated in different ways, including public service (e.g.,
Scott, 2006), as a contribution to society (Compagnucci and
Spigarelli, 2020), or entrepreneurial/economic mission based,
around developing economic performance (Etzkowitz et al.,
2000; Trencher et al., 2014), linked with the changing direction
of university strategy towards increased income generation,
commercial enterprise and business engagement (Jary, 2005;
Bessant et al., 2015). The use of mission and purpose is
often used interchangeably (i.e., in the mission statement of
the university), and there may be a difference between the
espoused purpose of a mission (research to drive societal
transformation) and the practical purpose (to increase university
ranking). This paper conceptualises the use of domains, missions
and purposes of a university in an overlapping but separate
manner. For example, a university may have a research domain
covering the research activity of the university, which enacts the
mission to carry out research for the purpose of, for example,
driving societal transformation. All four domains of activity
may intersect and contribute to both the different missions and
the espoused purpose of the university. For example, research
informs teaching, educational research is carried out, the campus
provides a hidden curriculum for learning (Winter and Cotton,
2012; Cotton et al., 2013), and the campus can act as a living
lab for research into sustainable solutions (Evans et al., 2015;
Robinson et al., 2021).
Universities can be seen also as socio-ecological and complex
adaptive systems with interdependencies between people (social
systems) and nature (ecological systems) (Colding and Barthel,
2019), as well as subsystems that interact at different levels
(Anderies et al., 2004). Therefore, universities are made up of
social systems such as bureaucratic and governing structures
and social-cultural norms and rules, as well as their physical
space including multi-purpose buildings and green space. All
of these have direct and indirect environmental (or ecological)
and social impacts of their activities. Thus, governance for
sustainability within universities is both part of the system
itself, as well as a means to direct change in other parts of
the system.
The Relationship Between University
Governance and Sustainability Governance
in Universities
Transforming universities to fulfil their role in a more
sustainable future requires effective systems of sustainability
governance, whether from an uncritical reformist viewpoint
focusing on how change can be driven through the existing
system; the critical transformative tradition, with a focus
on the need for full system reform; or a more pragmatic
tradition which advocates for working within the system while
seeking greater systemic reform (e.g., Bessant et al., 2015).
Governance within an organisation comprises a complex web
of interacting elements, including legislative frameworks, how
money is allocated to and within the organisation, processes
of decision making and policy and objective setting and
monitoring as well as less formal structures and relationships
which steer and influence behaviour (Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, 2003 p. 68; Oxford, 2006;
Trakman, 2008).
University governance for sustainability (used herein
interchangeably with “sustainability governance”) is the
governance of matters pertaining to social and ecological
dimensions of sustainability across all domains of the university.
It includes governance of matters related directly to the university
itself and its activities outside of the campus boundaries, as well
the influence of wider systems of governance (e.g., national
regulation of higher education), as university sustainability
governance does not take place in a vacuum removed from other
layers of explicit governance and implicit influence.
Sustainability governance sits within the broader framework
and processes of university governance. However, in this
paper we take the position that sustainability must be
at the core of all elements of a university’s operations
and activities because (nearly) all governed activities at a
university have sustainability implications, whether directly
or indirectly. As such, wider university governance and
sustainability governance within universities must be treated
as inseparable when considering structures and processes of
sustainability governance in universities. Even if the matter
being governed is not directly related to sustainability (that
is, it is not governance of sustainability), the governance
process still ought to be sustainable (governance as
sustainability) and contribute to sustainability (governance
for sustainability).
Frontiers in Sustainability | 2August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Governance for Sustainability in
With a growing interest in the role of higher education in
contributing to a more sustainable future there is a concurrent
interest in sustainability governance in universities (e.g., Bauer
et al., 2018; Leal Filho et al., 2020; Niedlich et al., 2020a,b)
and in understanding the challenges, processes, and barriers to
amplifying the sustainability contributions of Higher Education
Institutions (HEIs) (e.g., Hoover and Harder, 2015). Governance
structures form a basis for institutional action, management
decisions, and regulations made within organisations and can
affect the way in which sustainability is perceived and practiced
in higher education (Leal Filho et al., 2020). Sustainability
governance encompasses many different elements, from formal
organisational staffing and reporting structures, to sustainability
assessment tools, resourcing, training, communication and
participation structures as well as external structures including
funding sources.
In addition to these elements of sustainability governance,
there are many different important attributes of sustainability
governance in universities, including reliability and
accountability, and adequate resourcing, long-term planning,
staff support and the commitment of senior management
(Vaughter et al., 2016; Leal Filho et al., 2020). Other important
attributes of sustainability governance include participation and
dialogue, the inclusion of diverse stakeholders, and co-creative
processes (see Niedlich et al., 2020b). The role of committed
and motivated individuals, often referred to as “sustainability
champions,” is also highlighted by many writers as being an
evident part of university change processes towards sustainability
(e.g., Lozano, 2006; Newman, 2007). Despite the plethora of
emerging literature on mechanisms and attributes to drive
sustainability (Leal Filho et al., 2020), there is a relative lack of
literature exploring the overarching structures for sustainability
governance in universities (Hoover and Harder, 2015), the
impact of organisational culture on sustainability governance
(Niedlich et al., 2020b), the link to organisational learning
and change theory (Cebrián et al., 2013; Sylvestre and Wright,
2016), and the extent to which the resilience of sustainability
governance can be leveraged for universities’ transformations
towards sustainability.
Resilience and Sustainability
Normative and Non-normative Concepts of
Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems
The concept of resilience has been influential in the field of
sustainability. Many permutations of the term exist, such as
social resilience, community resilience, organisational resilience,
and urban resilience. Further complicating the landscape is the
colloquial similarity between sustainability and resilience which
can cause the terms to become conflated. In this article, we use
social-ecological resilience, “the capacity of a system to absorb
disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to
still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks
and therefore identity, that is, the capacity to change in order to
maintain the same identity” (Folke, 2016, p. 8). In other words,
it has to do with how a social-ecological system copes in the face
of stressors.
What is especially valuable in the social-ecological tradition
of resilience is that it can be used in a non-normative way.
In organisational governance, resilience is usually assumed to
be a desirable state. This is because, if the organisation is
resilient, it will better cope with stressors and therefore will
continue to exist (Figure 1A). However, taking a non-normative
approach to resilience the question may be how can the resilience
of an organisation be destabilised in order to repurpose the
organisation towards sustainability. Resilience can also be used
as a neutral descriptor, to help us to understand how a system
can be resilient in an undesirable condition. This also helps to
clarify the difference between resilience and sustainability, since
their aims can actually be at odds with one another (Elmqvist,
2017). Instead of focusing on reducing the impact of the stressors
on the organisation as is typically the goal in organisational
resilience, we might want to increase the impact of stressors
on the university to destabilise unsustainable elements, while
also enhancing the resilience of the more sustainable elements
(Figure 1B).
Resilience of What to What?
When operationalising the concept of resilience it is important
to state what we want to be resilient and to what do we want
it to be resilient (Carpenter et al., 2001). In this paper, we have
two foci for which we need to specify the resilience of “what
to what”: we want to retain the sustainable elements within
the university by making them more resilient, and we want to
destabilise unsustainable elements by making them less resilient.
This leads to the question, what is a sustainable university?
Although (or perhaps, because) many scholars have attempted,
theoretically and empirically, to pin down definitions, models,
and frameworks to explain what a sustainable university is (e.g.,
Velazquez et al., 2006; Lukman and Glaviˇ
c, 2007; Sterling, 2013;
Hussain et al., 2019), contestation persists.
Given the lack of consensus, we, like Sterling (2013) do not
define sustainability in a prescriptive or operational sense. We
see the sustainable university as “one that through its guiding
ethos, outlook and aspirations, governance, research, curriculum,
community links, campus management, monitoring and modus
operandi seeks explicitly to explore, develop, contribute to,
embody and manifest—critically and reflexively—the kinds of
values, concepts and ideas, challenges and approaches that
are emerging from the growing global sustainability discourse”
(Sterling, 2013, p. 23). We want to enhance the resilience of
parts of the university that embody these activities, through
research, education, outreach, and the physical campus itself. The
inverse, a university (or elements within the university) which
does not seek to carry out these activities (or perhaps, even stands
against these activities), is what we want to destabilise through
undermining its resilience.
Sustainable elements of the university need to be resilient to
stressors like the changing socio-economic (e.g., demographic
changes, internationalisation, funding mechanisms), political
(e.g., policy, environmental campaigns), and technological (e.g.,
digitalisation) factors that can pressure universities to adapt or
Frontiers in Sustainability | 3August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
FIGURE 1 | (A) How resilience is typically conceptualised for an organisational
context. Resilience is considered to be a desirable state and therefore the
focus is on increasing the organisations’ capacity to withstand stressors. (B)
How resilience is conceptualised in this paper. Resilience is considered to be a
non-normative construct and therefore its desirability is dependent on the
subject in question. In this study, we take the stance that there should be an
increased capacity of the sustainable elements within the university to
withstand stressors, and a decreased capacity of unsustainable elements to
withstand stressors.
transform (Pinheiro and Young, 2017). Conversely, we suggest
that the resilience of unsustainable elements of the university
need to be eroded such that they can be destabilised and
potentially exchanged for more sustainable replacements.
Operationalising Resilience Through Resilience
One of the main criticisms of the concept of social-ecological
resilience is that, while it might be useful as a descriptive concept,
it falls short of being operational. For over a decade, scholars
have been working to operationalise the concept (Chapin et al.,
2009; Cilliers et al., 2013). A recent evolution is the development
of principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services
(Biggs et al., 2012, 2015). Biggs et al. (2012, 2015) propose seven
generic, policy-relevant principles for enhancing resilience in
the face of disturbance and ongoing change in social-ecological
systems in the context of ecosystem services and natural resource
management. The principles are split into two components:
system properties to be managed (diversity and redundancy;
connectivity; slow variables and feedback) and attributes of
the governance system (complex systems thinking; learning;
participation; polycentricity). However, when the governance
system is also a component of the social-ecological system under
investigation (in this case, a university), there is blurring of
the governors and the governed. This can result in analyses that
duplicate themselves across the principles. Therefore, Laycock
Pedersen (2019) has proposed a reformulation of Biggs et al.’s
(2012, 2015) principles for contexts where the subject(s) to be
sustained are not ecosystem services, but rather social-ecological
system(s) in which the social systems or constructs are at the fore.
These principles are to:
1. Manage diversity and redundancy
. . . with respect to variety, balance, and disparity. . .
a. . . . including in participation in governance
b. . . . including through polycentric governance
2. Manage connectivity
. . . with respect to presence/absence, distribution, intensity,
strength, modularity, and nestedness of connections. . .
a. . . . including in participation in governance
b. . . . including through polycentric governance
3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks
4. Encourage learning and experimentation
. . . with respect to the system and its governance, complex
adaptive systems, and unknown unknowns
These principles still overlap in some places, and taking steps
towards one can help fulfill or undermine another. This will be
reflected in the subsequent analysis of the use of these principles
in the context of university sustainability governance. These
principles will be explained in greater detail in turn in the section
Applying Resilience Principles to Sustainability in Universities.
Previous attempts to work with these resilience principles have
demonstrated that their application can become highly complex
(Clarvis et al., 2015; Laycock Pedersen, 2019), due in large part
to the large number of potentially relevant variables in any
given context (Laycock Pedersen, 2019). Other scholars using the
resilience principles have narrowed their analysis by focusing on
only two or three of the principles (e.g., Kummu et al., 2020;
Röös et al., 2021), which means important connectivity between
variables can be missed.
Through this conceptual paper (Jaakkola, 2020), we aim to show
how a non-normative resilience lens can help understand how
to adapt a university’s governance so the institution can be
repurposed towards sustainability. We explore the current state
of (un)sustainability in universities through an adapted version
of Biggs et al.’s (2012, 2015) principles for building resilience
(Laycock Pedersen, 2019), identifying different examples of how
these principles can help us to adapt governance of sustainability
within the university.
Frontiers in Sustainability | 4August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
We draw on our own experiences at universities in the UK
and Sweden, and academic literature in order to explore the
intersection between resilience theory and governance structures
for sustainability in universities. This paper will consider each
of the four resilience principles in turn. We explore how each
principle could be applied to sustainability governance, and
through this lens, identify how different attributes contribute
to the resilience of current unsustainable systems, and/or can
contribute to the vulnerability or resilience of already existing
sustainability work. Through this analysis, we will identify how
we might be able to adapt university sustainability governance to
destabilise unsustainable systems, and create space for, enhance,
and reinforce sustainability work and a sustainable purpose.
In the following section, we consider each of the four
aforementioned resilience principles in the context of the
sustainability and sustainability governance of universities, to
identify how to enhance sustainability governance in higher
education to repurpose universities towards sustainability. For
each principle, we will first describe it in greater detail, and then
consider a number of relevant variables and examples.
Principle 1: Manage Diversity and
According to Biggs et al. (2012, 2015), there are three components
which comprise diversity: variety (the number of different
elements); balance (how many of each element); and disparity
(how different are the elements from each other). Redundancy
refers to the replication of elements. High levels of diversity and
redundancy are important for resilience because they provide
multiple response options when under stress. This is because,
although limiting diversity can increase efficiency, too little
diversity can result in too few response options in the face
of stressors. However, too much diversity and redundancy can
increase complexity, thereby “reducing the nimbleness of the
system to adapt to change” (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 426). In some
cases, too much diversity can also increase insularity (such as
in social groups) and thereby reduce connectivity (Pemberton,
When managing diversity and redundancy, it is important to
consider participation in governance and the extent to which
governance is polycentric. Participation in governance should
be broadened to include diversity and redundancy of actors,
while paying attention to and mitigating power differentials.
Polycentricity refers to a governance system in which multiple
governing bodies interact within a specific area (Biggs et al.,
2015). In polycentric governance systems, the level at which
issue-areas are governed should reflect the size and scope of
the issue (Schoon et al., 2015). By using this approach, efforts
can be coordinated at a higher level, while devolved governance
can allow for autonomy and integration of knowledge and
practices at a local level. Polycentric governance systems involve
a diversity of actors in matters that directly pertain to and
affect them, increasing the number of perspectives able to offer
solutions, as well as building in redundancy in the case of non-
participation. The redundancies built into the modular nature
of polycentric governance also means that experimentation and
learning (principle 4) can be undertaken more safely. That is,
experimentation that fails in one module of the system will
have a lesser impact on the wider governance system, allowing
governance in other modules and at other scales to continue
to function.
Table 1 outlines a series of questions to enable the analysis of
the role of the three different types of diversity identified by Biggs
et al. (2012, 2015) and redundancy across a number of selected
areas relevant to university governance for sustainability. The
relevance of these different areas to sustainability governance is
then explored further below.
Diversity in the Types and Topics of Sustainability
Covering a diversity of and balance between types and topics
of sustainability work is necessary to deliver sustainability
holistically. The different types of activities sustainability should
be embedded in span across each of the university’s domains
of activity. It is also important that a diversity of sustainability
topics are addressed, spanning and integrating social and
environmental areas, encompassing issues as diverse as food,
water, energy, health, inclusion, and social justice.
Historically, sustainability work in universities has often been
relegated to operational management of the estate, with an
emphasis on environmental sustainability through, for example,
energy efficiency and recycling. This unbalanced approach to
sustainability has meant that many actors have not “seen” a
place for themselves within the sustainability agenda. Conversely,
a diverse sustainability agenda provides a diverse set of entry
points (Jones et al., 2010) to help capture buy-in from a broad
range of actors doing different types of work covering different
topics. This can be encouraged through ensuring a wide range
of topics in sustainability reporting activity and a wide range
of areas represented in a university-level sustainability “steering
group,” covering representatives leading in different areas of
activity such as (amongst others), catering, procurement, events
and conferencing, human resources, partnerships, research and
education, alongside more traditional energy and environmental
management representatives. Ultimately, this diversity can
ground the agenda more deeply within the university.
Diversity in Participation in Sustainability Work and
Participation from a wide diversity of stakeholders in
sustainability work and governance is important. This includes
diversity of staff (administration, teaching, research, operational,
different disciplines, etc.) and students (e.g., degree types,
levels, disciplines). It also means considering the identities of
participants in question, such as gender, race, age, class, ability,
sexuality, religion, and so on. Diversity of participation needs
careful management to ensure that participation results in
cooperation and learning rather than polarisation. For example,
unspoken assumptions rooted in epistemological differences
Frontiers in Sustainability | 5August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
TABLE 1 | Examples of elements of university governance for sustainability in relation to Biggs et al.’s (2012, 2015) three types of diversity and redundancy.
Diversity Redundancy
Variety Balance Disparity
Types and topics of
sustainability work
Are there a variety of sustainability
initiatives taking place (e.g.,
educational, infrastructural,
research, student life, etc.)? Do they
address different sustainability
issues (e.g., social and
environmental; food, water, energy,
health, etc.)?
Is there a balance between the
different types of sustainability
initiatives taking place and the
topics of the sustainability issues
that they address?
How different are the types and
topics of sustainability work? Are
both social and environmental
sustainability topics included? Is
there work that falls into each of the
core domains of university activity?
Is there overlap between
different activities? Are
there several activities
tackling the same
sustainability problem (but
from different angles)?
Participation in
sustainability work &
Is there participation from diverse
staff (admin, teaching, research,
operational, different disciplines,
etc.), and students (different levels,
disciplines, mature, home vs.
campus based)?
Are there participants with different
identities (gender, race, age, class,
ability, sexuality, religion, etc.)
involved? Is this variety present at
different levels of governance?
Is there a variety of ways
stakeholders can participate in
sustainability governance at
different levels of decision making?
Does this include modes that are
passive and active, in-depth and
Is there involvement of participants
in a variety of different stages in
decision making?
Is there appropriate balance
between students and staff
involvement? Admin, operational,
and teaching/research staff? Is
the representation of different
identities in balance?
Is there an appropriate and
suitable balance between
different modes of
stakeholder involvement?
How different are the stakeholders
in sustainability governance? How
different are the roles of staff
involved? How different are the
disciplines they come from?
Is there redundancy in
participation from the
most transient and/or
hard-to-reach groups to
ensure uninterrupted
participation from these
Motivations driving
sustainability work
Are there different motivators that
drive sustainability work? (National
policies, institutional policy and
priorities, key individuals within the
organisation, funding streams,
research agendas, etc.)
Is there a balance between
different drivers of sustainability
work, or are there one or only a
few that genuinely motivate
sustainability work?
How different are the drivers of
sustainability work? Are there both
intrinsic (e.g., moral rationales) and
extrinsic (e.g., funding) drivers?
Is there redundancy in
drivers? (e.g., if one
funding stream dries up, is
there another that can
buffer its loss?)
Scales of activity Is sustainability work happening at
different scales e.g.,
cross-university initiatives and within
individual degree programmes?
Is there a balance in
responsibility for sustainability
work at the most appropriate
levels for the issues in concern
(e.g., the balance between senior
management decision making to
enable greater roll out of
sustainability activity vs. localised
decision making to trial new
approaches which has limited
Is sustainability work clustered at
particular scales? Are there
large-scale as well as small-scale
initiatives taking place?
Is there overlap in scales
of activity?
amongst stakeholders of different backgrounds has the potential
to undermine trust and create divisions (Cinˇ
cera et al., 2019).
Considering redundancy in participation in sustainability
work within the university is crucial. The role of committed
individuals, often referred to as “sustainability champions”
is highlighted by many writers as being an evident part of
university change processes towards sustainability (e.g., Lozano,
2006). These roles require relationship building and institutional
knowledge, requiring time for such a “champion” to be effective
in their work within an institution. As such, a lack of
redundancy (e.g., multiple “champions”) can make the system
very brittle with serious consequences for sustainability work if
key stakeholder(s) leave. Having key sustainability champions
can also make people see sustainability as the task of an individual
elite (Rath and Schmitt, 2017), conditions that reduce diversity
of participation.
Representation of all participant characteristics in all
sustainability work and governance is not only unlikely, but
probably impossible. Indeed, Biggs et al. (2012, p. 437) say that
“who participates [in governance] and what they contribute are
context specific and need to be continually revised throughout
the policy process or adaptive management cycle.” Context
Frontiers in Sustainability | 6August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
specific participation and revisions to participation processes are
not the norm in most universities. For example, universities often
stick to a standardised model of elected student representation
from Students’ Unions who participate in university meetings
(about for example, decisions related to development of the
campus estate, educational processes etc.), representing the
student voice.
While it can be helpful to consider which voices are (and
are not) represented, it is also crucial to consider the quality
of participation in sustainability governance. Formal university
governance structures can feature participation (especially
student participation) in tokenistic ways, and ways that maintain
hierarchies and existing power dynamics. As such, there should
be a variety of different strategies for facilitating participation
by stakeholders in decisions that affect them. For example,
including elected student representation on committees is a
common way to ensure student views are represented in
decisions. However, often these students are new to committee
structures, protocols (e.g., at which points opportunities to
voice opinions are invited, and how decisions are made), and
language, reducing their ability to optimise their participation.
It is not uncommon for decisions to be made in advance of
such meetings, rendering participation in them a formality rather
than providing a genuine forum for discussion. Furthermore,
some modes of participation are considered more legitimate
than others. For example, campus activism, student newspaper
articles, and social media are all places where student voices can
be heard, however, these voices are not always acknowledged
in formal governance systems. Efforts should be taken to
elicit diverse participation at different stages and to different
degrees (see Arnstein, 1969), and for different purposes (see
Collins and Ison, 2009). For example, consultation following
important university decisions, such as design and placement
of student residences, ought not to be the only participation
elicited. Alternative participation strategies such as focus groups
or questionnaires at earlier stages can allow for more diverse
perspectives to be captured at early stages in decision-making
processes. Alternative and unconventional approaches, such as
deliberative polling and citizen juries (CIVICUS, 2020), may also
be helpful to bring in underrepresented views and/or hard-to
reach stakeholders.
Diversity of participation in sustainability decision-making
or even sustainability activity can complicate the delivery of
sustainable outcomes. The lack of diversity in senior management
of universities (Croucher et al., 2020) can make decision-making
less complicated because fewer views need to be accommodated
and taken into account. Sustainability is a contested and ill-
defined concept, so the presence of a greater diversity of voices,
and especially greater disparity between the perspectives these
voices offer, means that coming to agreement and working in
coordination can be challenging. For example, students who
study sustainability tend to have quite holistic, and, at times,
idealistic ideas of what sustainability is, whereas staff who oversee
the campus estate tend to prioritise environmental concerns,
such as carbon reduction and waste management. This can lead
to frustration from students, who perceive “the university” to
be adopting a tokenistic approach, while estates staff can be
frustrated that students may expect them to work with issues
outside the remit of their job role. As can be seen here, diversity
can result in fractures within groups of people working with
sustainability, reducing connectivity and their ability to act in a
coordinated way. As such, from a resilience perspective, it could
be desirable to limit diversity in order to improve coordination of
sustainability. However, from an ethical perspective (and a social
sustainability perspective), inclusion and representation is not a
matter of improving the quality of the outcomes, but a matter of
rights, fairness, and justice. This tension is important to consider.
Diversity in Motivations Driving Sustainability Work
Diverse motivations driving sustainability work means that
change in government policy, leadership, key individuals,
funding streams, research agendas, or student demands will be
less likely to derail sustainability efforts across the university. It
is also important for this reason that there is more than one key
driver (i.e., a balance between different drivers). Redundancies
in drivers can also provide vital buffers. For example, if one
funding stream for sustainability research or sustainability
campus improvements dries up, proposals and applications can
be submitted through another. Also, having both intrinsic and
extrinsic drivers for sustainability work has the potential to create
more momentum than either driver could in isolation.
An example of the need for diverse motivations and drivers
for sustainability work in universities can be seen by looking
at the significant changes in key sector bodies championing
and supporting the role of universities in driving sustainability.
These changes have implications to the motivations for and level
of sustainability activity within universities. Higher Education
sector bodies can have a significant role in steering university
sustainability activity (Bessant et al., 2015), yet themselves
are subject to shifts and changing motivations. For example,
the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that was
responsible for the distribution of funding to universities,
in 2005 set out its vision for how universities and colleges
could contribute to sustainable development, providing a clear
steer for universities to embrace sustainability. In addition,
in 2013 HEFCE awarded £5 million to the National Union
of Students for a Students Green Fund to support student-
led sustainability activity. Yet, such funding opportunities are
short-lived, and HEFCE no longer exists as an organisation,
removing these specific drivers. Similarly the Higher Education
Academy, which supported learning and teaching activities in
universities in the UK, had a strong Education for Sustainable
Development strand of activity which created a whole-institution
sustainability-focused change programme and provided funding
for ESD activity in organisations. However, governmental
austerity measures led to the loss of this focus on ESD and
ultimately the loss of the Higher Education Academy itself,
further removing these drivers and support for universities.
These examples highlight how a diversity and balance of
different motivations and drivers for sustainability are needed
within a university in order to keep momentum in the face
of ever-shifting external (and internal) contexts of support
and motivation.
Frontiers in Sustainability | 7August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Diversity of Scales of Activity
University governance usually has some degree of polycentricity,
with powers devolved to committees and working groups
with specific mandates. However, there are often fairly rigid
reporting and decision-making structures that require reporting
to higher levels of decision-making. Often budgetary decisions
are made based on this reporting. If sustainability is not formally
embedded in these structures, it can be difficult to demonstrate
impact and access important financial and personnel resources.
However, because of this devolved structure, not all activities
are “controlled” by higher levels of governance. This means that
sustainability initiatives can take place at lower levels regardless
of a mandate from the top (provided they do not require
substantial internal resourcing). Although it is preferable for the
level of governance to match the scale of the issue, this means
action can be taken from a different scale if the appropriate
scale presents challenges. Governance at smaller scales also
creates opportunities for participation and provides a low-risk
environment for experimentation (principle 4). Furthermore, the
devolved university structure means that sustainability activity
can continue, even if sustainability-supportive leadership (e.g.,
a dean or head of operations with an affinity to sustainability)
changes. As such, this variety of scale “allows some of the
elements to persist through particular disturbances” (Biggs et al.,
2012, p. 425). This said, support from higher levels of governance
for smaller scale activities can provide stability for bottom-up
activities. This is especially true for activities led by students, as
they are so transient (Laycock Pedersen et al., 2019). Higher-level
support can also help to scale successful initiatives trialled at a
smaller scale.
However, even if there are degrees of polycentricity in
their governance, universities tend to emphatically eschew
redundancy, because redundancy is costly, and seen as inefficient.
This is largely because of the current drive for economic efficiency
within the sector. High levels of redundancy can increase
administrative costs, and also result in power struggles, and
contradictions in, for example, goals or approaches from different
groups or individuals.
Principle 2: Manage Connectivity
Connectivity within a social system refers to the “degree to
which different actors and entities interact across a social
landscape” (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 427), and comprises nodes
and links between nodes. The structure and strength of the
connectivity is determined by (i) the distribution of links between
nodes, whether these are “generalist” with lots of links, or
“specialist” with few links; (ii) the frequency or “thickness” of
interactions between the social actors comprising the nodes,
and (iii) “modularity,” the mix of densely and loosely connected
nodes. The strength and structure of links are not constant
in time (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 429), and may reflect formal
or informal changes in relationships between actors and the
establishment or disestablishment of nodes. Nodes will change
as individuals leave or join the organisation, or new formal
or informal groupings are formed, fall into disuse, or are
disbanded. The quality of the links between nodes is also
important. Where nodes represent individuals or groups of
people these links represent relationships, with high quality
relationships characterised by trust and reciprocity. Connectivity
also facilitates exchange of information or material between
different components of the system (Biggs et al., 2012), and hence
may play a role in establishing culture or new norms or sharing
learning. Connectivity can have either positive or negative effects
on the sustainability agenda and sustainability governance within
universities, and ultimately the goal of repurposing universities
towards sustainability. This is dependent on which nodes are
present, the strength of connectivity between them, the quality
of the links, and the nature of a disturbance to the system.
Connectivity Within Universities
Between Estates and Academic Domains
The different university domains (e.g., campus, education,
research, outreach) contribute to the modularity (and
polycentricity) of the university system. High connectivity
across different domains can help develop a common purpose
between different cultures that exist within different domains
(Sylvestre and Wright, 2016). Typically, connectivity within
these domains is high, while connectivity between domains tends
to be low, meaning that sustainability work across domains can
feel fragmented and unconnected. For example, it is common
to have limited connectivity between the estates functions and
the academic functions of a university. Where universities
have started leading education for sustainable development
activities from an estates-based directorate where leadership
for “sustainability governance” often sits, the weak connections
between campus operations and the academic functions of the
university can limit the impact on the academic domain.
“Sustainability champions” are an important formally
or informally-recognised aspect of university sustainability
governance and change agendas (e.g., Lozano, 2006; Brinkhurst
et al., 2011), and may exhibit different levels of connectivity
between nodes. Sustainability champions can hold important
coordination roles linking different nodes and increasing
connectivity within the system. However, if a high level of
connectivity is supported by a single individual, it is highly
fragile. This is because connectivity will be largely dependent
on the individual’s ability to develop quality relationships with
diverse actors across the university, making connectivity highly
vulnerable to the individual leaving the organisation.
Between Students and University Administration
Another common area where connections tend to be weak or
poor quality is between the university and students or students’
unions. Students are highly transient, typically rotating in and
out of the university community in 3 or 4 years, meaning that
connections between students and staff are regularly disrupted,
hindering the development of trust and quality relationships
(Laycock Pedersen et al., 2019). Students’ unions are typically
used to help create more effective relationships between the
student body and the university, and serve the purpose of
representing students within the institution as well as providing
a variety of services for students. These formal structures of
students’ union representation in university governance and
decision making can be brittle as they often involve only a single
Frontiers in Sustainability | 8August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
student representative. Relationships between students’ unions
and university management are seen to be more constructive
and less adversarial than in the past (Brooks et al., 2015),
improving the quality of this connectivity. However, if there
is low connectivity between the students’ union and the wider
student body, then it does not serve to effectively increase
the connectivity between students and university governance.
Students’ unions are not the only way to build connections
between students and university governance. There is an
increasing drive to increase connectivity through both formal
structures such as programme level committees to give students
a voice in curriculum development, as well as pedagogical
movements such as treating students as partners in the co-
creation of education and research (e.g., Healey et al., 2014;
Warwick, 2016; Barrineau and Anderson, 2018). External bodies
have also devised structures to improve the connectivity between
university governance and students’ unions and students to
foster education for sustainable development, such as the
UK’s National Union of Students’ (now Students Organising
for Sustainability, SOS-UK) Responsible Futures accreditation
programme (National Union of Students, 2021).
Connectivity Between Universities
High connectivity between higher education institutions can
create norms that present resistance to change if unsustainable
attributes are common throughout the sector. Biggs et al. (2012)
state that “high levels of connectivity among actors can lead to
synchronized behavior [...] or to strong barriers for changing
unsustainable practices” (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 429). In social
networks actors tend to have strong ties to other actors with
similar characteristics (McPherson et al., 2001), which can lead to
high connectivity between actors with similar perspectives, and
a lack of diversity overall. Within the higher education system
in the UK there are a number of different “mission groups”
(such as the Russell Group) which connect universities with
common interests, and promote different agendas (Furey et al.,
2014). There is also a clear hierarchy in mission groups. The
Russell Group (“committed to maintaining the highest standards
of research, education, and knowledge transfer”) is viewed as the
elite group in UK higher education, therefore setting aspirations
for other universities. Where there is a shift in position towards
sustainability from actors in an elite mission group, this shift
has the potential to influence a wider range of institutions
than changes in “lower ranking” mission groups. Alternatively,
establishment of a new mission group or network which connects
universities with a goal of repurposing towards sustainability
could increase the influence of these actors on the rest of the
sector network as well as providing support for each other. The
impact of this new modularity would be enhanced if it includes a
diversity of institutions, including some of the “elite.”
In 2011, the Higher Education Academy in the UK
launched a change programme called “Green Academy” which
worked with a cohort of 10 universities to initiate systemic
change towards sustainability in their universities. One of the
unplanned outcomes of this programme was the development
of an informal, albeit short-lived, network of participant
universities (McCoshan and Martin, 2012) which included
universities across different mission groups (including the Russell
Group). This programme also led to increased connectivity
within organisations due to the requirement of cross-hierarchy
participation, and hence through its influence on connectivity
this programme is believed to have had an impact in driving
sustainability both within individual institutions and across the
sector (McCoshan and Martin, 2012).
Connectivity With External Non-academic Partners
In order for universities to be genuinely repurposed for
sustainability, connections between universities and actors
outside of the university are also important for “bringing
outside perspectives and new ideas to local issues” (Biggs et al.,
2012, p. 428) and producing genuinely transdisciplinary and
collaborative forms of inquiry and knowledge creation (Sylvestre
and Wright, 2016). Universities are increasingly referred to as
“civic” or “anchor” institutions (e.g., Birch et al., 2013), given
their potential to positively influence local communities and
economies. Connections may be formalised through university
representation on formal regional governance bodies (such as
Local Enterprise Partnerships in the English context), as well
as involvement in regional coalitions around different issues
(e.g., place-based climate change responses). Universities can
play an important role in such coalitions as “honest brokers”
(Andereggen et al., 2012; Bogenschneider, 2020). Engaging
with external partners not only increases universities’ own
connections within local networks, they are often a key node
connecting other actors to one another.
Connections with external actors are also important to the
educational and research domains and missions if universities
are to genuinely serve a wider purpose for society. Greater
connectivity with external actors can create opportunities for
students to work with partner organisations on sustainability
goals, providing them opportunities to work with sustainability
problems in different contexts, as well as contributing human
resources to different actors. University research missions also
benefit from connectivity with external organisations to ensure
impact of research by shaping research with external actors, while
a new mission focus on “knowledge exchange” (Johnson, 2020)
also highlights the shift towards increased external connectivity.
Principle 3: Manage Slow Variables and
Slow variables are variables within a system which change
over long timescales (Walker et al., 2012). They determine the
underlying structure and conditions within the system. Within
a social system these can include, amongst others, legal systems,
values and traditions (Biggs et al., 2012). Fast variables tend to
receive more attention than slow variables because when they
change, consequences can be observed with greater immediacy
(Walker et al., 2012). Feedbacks are “the two-way ‘connectors
between variables that can either reinforce (positive feedback) or
dampen (negative feedback) change” (Simonsen et al., 2014).
Managing slow variables and feedbacks requires thinking
through the influences that operate at different timescales, as well
as their consequences (the feedbacks) of factors in the system.
Changes in slow variables are often hard to observe because
Frontiers in Sustainability | 9August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
they happen so slowly. However, changes in slow variables in
complex systems can lead to sudden, unpredictable, and non-
linear changes if a tipping point is reached. This can ultimately
force a transformation such that the structure and behaviour of
the system is of a fundamentally different character (Biggs et al.,
2012). Hence, consideration of slow variables may be one of the
most essential of Biggs et al.’s (2012) resilience principles when
seeking to shift systems from undesirable states, such as in the
case of repurposing higher education towards sustainability.
Slow Variables
Universities are historic institutions. The first institutions
recognisable as universities, combining higher learning,
corporate autonomy, and academic freedom, arose in Medieval
Europe (Perkin, 2007). Although universities and their
“missions” have continually evolved (Trencher et al., 2014),
their longevity shows that these institutions are designed to
endure over time, withstanding change and short-lived crises
(Newman, 2007). Universities are therefore not designed to
enable a quick and easy transformation towards sustainability
(Newman, 2007). Academic traditions and cultures can act as
slow variables, as can external socio-economic and cultural
factors. These can affect the ease of repurposing universities
for sustainability. In the following sections we will consider
the following slow variables: (i) academic traditions and
organisational culture, and (ii) national regulatory and funding
body ethos and requirements.
Academic Traditions and Organisational Culture
The traditions and culture that exist within the higher education
sector as a whole and within individual organisations can be
seen as a slow variable. Drawing on early work by Schein
(1985),Niedlich et al. (2020a, p. 375)describe organisational
culture as “a pattern of assumptions shared by members of an
organisation, developed over time, and transmitted through day-
to-day interaction with one another.” This culture is reflected
in visible elements, such as structures and language (as reflected
in increasing managerialist language, Sterling, 2001), as well as
those that are more opaque, such as beliefs (Niedlich et al.,
2020a). Organisational culture within any one institution can
be seen as part of the context dependent conditions of any
university (Niedlich et al., 2020a), but equally aspects of that
culture emanate from historical and global academic traditions.
Factors such as size, location, disciplinary scope, as well as overall
political regulatory measures can all affect the cultural orientation
of an organisation (Niedlich et al., 2020a).
Organisational values, attitudes and behaviours, as dictated
by organisational culture, can be a key component of achieving
deeper change within an institution (Niedlich et al., 2020b).
This is because elements of organisational culture and academic
tradition, such as authority and self-determination (Niedlich
et al., 2020b), may act as mediators in an organisations’ response
to fulfil its role in addressing unsustainability challenges.
Some have argued that the cultural foundations of universities
are an inherent part of the current unsustainability of
the university system therefore repurposing universities for
sustainability requires “a change in their cultural foundations”
(Niedlich et al., 2020b, p. 375). This is highlighted by the
recurring emphasis on organisational culture as a driver of
organisational change (Verhulst and Lambrechts, 2015). As
well as an organisational culture of the institution as a whole,
the different domains of academic activity, education, research,
campus, outreach, as well as different disciplines, are all marked
by differences in cultures (Sylvestre and Wright, 2016; Niedlich
et al., 2020a), even within a single organisation. For a whole
institution transformation towards sustainability, organisational
culture in all areas is important.
“Academic freedom” within teaching and research is a
prized tradition in Western universities, but can make it
difficult to “force” transformation of teaching, learning and
research activities in a particular direction, including towards
sustainability (Jones et al., 2010; Bauer et al., 2018). This is
powerfully demonstrated by Peter Knight’s vitriolic and sarcastic
article in one of the UK’s national newspapers, in response to
the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE,
2005) consultation document on sustainable development in
higher education. In the document, HEFCE suggested that
universities should promote sustainable development through
the curriculum (amongst other areas). Knight (2005) called this
document “pernicious, shameful and dangerous” referring to the
document’s “self-righteous waffle” as the “final assault on the last
remaining freedom of universities.” He concludes by saying:
“The issue here is not whether sustainable development is a
good or bad idea. It is about the basic rights and responsibilities
of universities and the need to safeguard academic freedom.
It is not the job of universities to promote a particular
political orthodoxy.”
However, in the 16 years since this article was written,
sector bodies in the UK have become more supportive of the
incorporation of sustainability into the curriculum (and the
wider university). Academic freedom still remains an important
tenet of higher education, but our shifting understanding of what
academic freedom means in the context of rapid degradation
of our life support systems and its interplay with the moral
imperative of sustainability is a slow variable to be observed.
International and National Policy and Regulatory/Funding
Body Requirements and Ethos
Slow variables relevant to the governance of sustainability in
universities also exist outside of the institutions themselves.
They may include international drivers; national policy and
higher education bodies’ drivers, regulation, and values; and
requirements of funding bodies. These, in turn, influence
different university domains and organisational culture.
In theory, slow variables at an international level are in
place to support repurposing of universities. Successive United
Nations (UN) Education for Sustainable Development initiatives
(e.g., UNESCO, 2015, 2017, 2020) highlight the importance of
education in achieving a more sustainable future. Yet, despite
these international level initiatives, there are still calls for
rapid structural (rather than incremental) change in global
governance to bring about the needed extent and speed of
Frontiers in Sustainability | 10 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
societal change (Biermann et al., 2012), as well as criticisms of
a lack of significant impact. National political discourse can also
deter pro-sustainability change at a university level. Unaligned
national policies were amongst several national-level challenges
for transforming universities identified by sustainability leaders
of colleges and universities (Scott et al., 2012). Over several
decades, neoliberal ideologies and new public management
approaches dominating UK higher education have impacted
universities’ foci and culture. In England, universities have been
repositioned as contributors to the knowledge and industrial
economy, and this has resulted in their gradual repositioning to
sit under government departments associated with business and
industrial strategy (Bessant et al., 2015; Bessant, 2017). Likewise,
moves to measure the “worth” of a student degree through
the salaries that their graduates earn places an emphasis on
particular subjects (and institutions), and encourages universities
to focus on preparing graduates for the workforce, rather than
emphasising the intrinsic worth of education and learning.
Increasing sustainability research can also be impeded
through, for example, active discouragement of education
for sustainable development research (Bessant and Robinson,
2019) and national funding mechanisms that discourage
transdisciplinary research (Scott et al., 2012; Bessant
and Robinson, 2019). These prevailing norms are slow
variables which act as barriers to university transformation
towards sustainability.
Conversely, other national research-focused drivers can also
support repurposing universities for sustainability. For example,
the discussion of research “impact” and transdisciplinary co-
creation is increasing, and being actioned through research
funding mechanisms. For example, the European Horizon
2020 funding programme emphasises multi-actor and public
engagement in research and innovation in order to align “the
process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations
of society” (European Commission, 2020). Although this
highlights slow variables external to the university, such as
national drivers and funding mechanisms, are outside direct
university control, there are signs of movement within some
of these slow variables which may be critical in repurposing
universities towards sustainability, and bringing attention to pro-
sustainability changes in slow variables can be used to drive
change at an institutional level.
Feedbacks are essential in maintaining or shifting slow variables.
Explicit feedback loops are built into many governance
structures, for example, through monitoring and evaluation
processes. Implicit feedback loops also exist within social systems,
for example in the rewarding of particular behaviours or
areas of achievement. Reinforcing feedbacks can more deeply
entrench current paradigms and values within the university.
Therefore, identifying what these reinforcing feedbacks are and
identifying ways to weaken them are important leverage points
for change. This section explores examples of explicit and implicit
reinforcing feedbacks that are entrenching current paradigms
and values as well as ways to use feedbacks to drive change.
Explicit Feedbacks: Monitoring and Evaluation Systems
Quality processes, which include monitoring and evaluation,
are important to the governance of a university. However,
these governance processes have been designed within the
framework of the existing university system, and hence can
reinforce unsustainable dominating values, goals, worldviews,
and social structures. Monitoring requirements are also imposed
from outside the university. For example, national government
requirements for universities to report on graduate salaries
can perpetuate a narrow focus on an economic mission in
universities. This focus, in turn, reinforces the idea that graduate
salaries are important metrics to measure.
Despite many of the negative aspects of neoliberal and
managerialist control mechanisms which are used to govern
universities, Bessant et al. (2015) highlight the potential for
amplifying feedbacks through such mechanisms (like monitoring
and evaluation) to be hijacked for a more sustainable focus.
For example, interweaving sustainability into instruments which
publicly measure institutional performance could influence
student choice of university and degree course, and thereby
amplify the sustainability agenda in universities and increase
its value within the managerialist and market-led monitoring
mechanisms which govern academic systems. An example of
this can be seen in how the recent evaluation of education
for sustainable development in Higher Education in Sweden
(UKRI, 2019) has renewed an interest in the imperative to embed
sustainability in the curriculum (SOU 2019:13, 2019).
The choice of what to monitor is critical to how monitoring
and evaluation feedbacks function. In the UK, metrics that are
monitored across teaching and research domains include student
numbers, degree outcomes, research income, and “quality” of
research outputs. There is less focus on long-term impact of
either education or research activities. There is a tendency
to use measures which monitor what is short-term (i.e., fast
variables) and easily quantified, creating a myopic view of the
“success” of a university. A shift in explicit feedbacks through
the choice of what is monitored, to include a focus on longer-
term sustainability-focused impact, could have substantial impact
on shifting slow variables that enable repurposing the university.
Investment in, and greater respect for, qualitative monitoring
measures would also be appropriate to capture a fuller picture
of sustainability in universities.
Implicit Feedbacks: Rewarding Behaviour
and Communication
Feedbacks can also be implicit, such as how particular behaviours
are rewarded and therefore incentivised through mechanisms
such as promotions and appraisal processes, public celebration
of individuals and their achievement, and formal time allocation
to particular activities.
The language used within an organisation can also reinforce
the dominant paradigm. This is because it is a surface-level
manifestation of organisational culture (Niedlich et al., 2020a).
That is, the language shapes the culture, and the culture shapes
the language we use. Much of the language used in governance
of HE is managerialist and that of monitoring and metrics,
Frontiers in Sustainability | 11 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
rather than the purpose lying behind the metrics (Sterling, 2001).
For example, a focus on grant income at the expense of the
societal contribution or wider impact of research, or student
degree outcomes rather than student learning and development.
Therefore, actors can become focused on the short-term metrics
rather than considering the larger scale purpose of activity in
different domains.
Funding opportunities also provide feedback mechanisms.
For example, interdisciplinary research is seen as essential
for addressing sustainability challenges, but the funding and
reward system has been biased against interdisciplinary research
(Bessant and Robinson, 2019), potentially reducing researchers’
engagement with interdisciplinary research. However, there are
clear signals in the UK research system that this is changing,
as the number of research funding calls explicitly requiring
interdisciplinary research is increasing.
Principle 4: Encourage Learning and
The fourth principle is encourage learning and experimentation
with respect to the system and its governance, complex adaptive
systems, and unknown unknowns. Biggs et al. (2012, p. 434)
define learning as “the process of modifying existing or acquiring
new knowledge, behaviours, skills, values or preferences.”
Learning can play a key role in changing worldviews and values.
Consideration of the different levels of learning (i.e., single,
double and triple loop learning) and change (i.e., first order
change and second order change) highlight the importance
of considering the “type” of learning that is necessary in
repurposing universities towards sustainability and the depth and
transformational extent of change (Sterling, 2001). Single loop
learning, or first order change, asks us to question whether we are
doing things right, leaving basic values unexamined. Double loop
learning, or second order change, involves critically reflective
learning (Sterling, 2001) and asks us to question if we are
doing the right things, and questioning underlying assumptions.
Triple loop learning, or third order change, asks us to question
how we know what the right things are to do, questions our
values and norms, and involves deep awareness of alternative
worldviews and ways of doing things (Sterling, 2001). Hence
double and triple loop learning is a requirement for the genuine
repurposing of universities, yet most change for sustainability in
higher education has been largely engaged with first order change
(Albrecht et al., 2007; Sylvestre and Wright, 2016).
For change of a large organisation like a university, individual
learning is helpful but not sufficient, hence transformation at
universities calls for social learning (Sylvestre and Wright, 2016).
Social learning is a process that “must (1) demonstrate that
a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals
involved; (2) demonstrate that this change goes beyond the
individual and becomes situated within wider social units
or communities of practice; and (3) occur through social
interactions and processes between actors within a social
network” (Reed et al., 2010). Hence social learning requires
participation, which enables diverse perspectives (principle 1)
and builds trust and relationships that can contribute to collective
action (Biggs et al., 2012).
Placing learning in the context of complex adaptive systems
(CAS) also builds resilience (Biggs et al., 2012). A complex
adaptive system worldview emphasizes uncertainty and the need
to “continually learn and experiment and adaptively manage
uncertainty, disturbance, and surprise, rather than attempt to
eliminate it” (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 432). This sits in contrast
to technical, reductionist, and one-size fits all approaches to
learning and solution seeking. Mechanisms of learning within
a CAS include formal monitoring mechanisms (feedbacks,
principle 3) and experimentation, as sits at the heart of the ethos
of using universities as living labs (Evans et al., 2015). Reflection
on the efficacy of processes at all levels, as well as the learning
process itself, is also required to ensure adaptation of approaches,
and the development of a genuine learning organisation (Senge,
1997; Hodgkinson and Stewart, 1998).
Learning for Sustainability Education: Curriculum and
Staff Development
In universities, learning is both a key domain of sustainability
activity and a core university mission. Therefore, the curriculum,
staff development, and structures that support and govern
curriculum development need to be adapted for a university
repurposed for sustainability. The role of education (or learning)
in achieving a more sustainable future has been widely
acknowledged, and widely reinforced by myriad international
initiatives. Yet, David Orr’s famous quote highlights how
our prevailing educational programmes and approaches can
further unsustainability:
“The truth is that without significant precautions, education can
equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth”
(Orr, 2004).
This highlights the need for the application of double and triple
loop learning, requiring reflection upon the assumptions, norms,
and values behind teaching activities and universities themselves,
as well as the responsibilities of educators (and their students)
to society (Robinson, 2019). How many educators truly question
what learning is for?
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has been
described in many ways, and grouped into different typologies
(i.e., Scott and Gough, 2003; Sterling, 2003; Vare and Scott,
2007). Vare and Scott’s simple bipartite division highlights the
critical differences in thinking about ESD. Their “ESD1” relates
to informing specific skills and behaviour to guide positive
actions, referred to as the sort of environmental education
advocated by policy makers, where there is a set of underlying
values and behavioural outcomes; whereas ESD2 focuses on the
development of the capacity to think critically, and the ability
to analyse and question alternatives, and make sound choices in
the face of complexity. Although Vare and Scott (2007) note that
both types of ESD have a role, a repurposed curriculum for the
“sustainable university” must ensure ESD2 is incorporated, not
just ESD1, thus the curriculum itself must reflect the higher levels
of organisational learning and change.
Frontiers in Sustainability | 12 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Reference to these different ESD typologies highlights that
the “how” of learning is at least as important as the “what”
of learning. Learning in groups, as well as different forms
of experiential and active learning, are therefore essential to
providing opportunities for learners to develop sustainability
competencies. There is growing recognition of the importance
of broader participation in the learning process by all parties
involved, and a growing interest in “students as partners” in their
own learning and learning design (Healey et al., 2014; Mercer-
Mapstone et al., 2017). Furthermore, the role of the co-/informal
curriculum in ESD is widely advocated because of the active and
experiential learning opportunities that these spheres enable.
As we repurpose student learning to incorporate ESD we
must also consider how educators, as key enablers, develop
competence in ESD (Barth and Rieckmann, 2012). ESD-focused
professional development structures have been shown to support
individual staff learning and competence development as well as
support organisational change towards sustainability, and hence
form an essential component of sustainability governance (Barth
and Rieckmann, 2012).
Learning by Doing—The University as a Living Lab
University campuses have been called “privileged space[s] of
innovation” (Evans and Karvonen, 2014, p. 415) because they
have potential to trial new technologies and approaches that
would be difficult to undertake in other settings/by other actors.
In this way they can be “living labs” for sustainability (Verhoef
et al., 2020). The living lab concept, if done well can exemplify
the transdisciplinary and collaborative enquiry necessary for
transformation for sustainability at universities (Sylvestre and
Wright, 2016), bringing together students, academic staff,
campus staff, and external stakeholders to co-produce knowledge
and solutions for sustainability challenges faced by the university
or wider stakeholders (Evans et al., 2015; Waheed, 2017). A
typical living lab approach will see researchers working with
students to investigate new sustainable innovations relating to an
area of the university’s campus or operations or a sustainability
challenge posed by an external partner, hence addressing an
element of the sustainability of the university campus operations,
as well as contributing to research and education missions. The
university-based “living lab” approach therefore is at its heart
about learning and experimentation for sustainable solutions
through using the campus (or wider community) itself, while also
providing active learning opportunities for students and staff.
Although universities as living labs have been viewed as a
panacea for repurposing universities towards sustainability by
some (see Waheed, 2017), adopting some living lab concepts
or labelling activity as a living lab does not necessarily lead
to effective learning, nor to repurposing a university for
sustainability. The lack of connectivity between estates and
academic functions of a university (principle 2) can reduce
the effectiveness of this approach. Experimentation involves
active manipulation of a piece of the university’s processes
and structures in order to observe and compare outcomes
(Biggs et al., 2012). However, experimentation on inappropriate
(i.e., short-term) timescales can actually lead to inappropriate
conclusions and management decisions (Biggs et al., 2012).
Particularly within complex adaptive systems, time lags may
exist between the interventions and their impact, and therefore
short-term monitoring may lead to inappropriate conclusions
about the impact of an intervention. Likewise, it is necessary
to consider how an intervention fits within its wider system to
include monitoring of a wider range of variables to avoid unseen
impacts in another part of the system. This requires the inclusion
of diverse stakeholders and perspectives (see principle 1) as well
as willingness and structures to facilitate reflection and double
and triple loop learning. For living labs to be effective as a method
of learning, the learning from experimentation and monitoring
and its link to management decisions needs to be explicitly built
into the design of the living lab process. This should also include
monitoring and evaluation of whether learning has taken place
within the governance itself (Robinson et al., 2021).
Learning for Sustainability Governance: Universities
as Participatory Learning Organisations
We do not have a blueprint for a “sustainable university”
and therefore we need to learn how to “do” sustainability
and to implement governance structures that enable reflexive
learning and inclusion of multiple stakeholders and co-creation
principles (McCrory et al., 2020). Accepting universities as
complex adaptive systems implies the need for a more integrated
approach (principle 2, connectivity), that can be difficult to
address across governance units that are usually separate (Biggs
et al., 2012) and may exist in tension. Therefore, universities
need to embrace the concepts of a “learning organization”
with different project stakeholders working together to improve
capacities and transform practice within the organisation (Senge,
1990) through continual reflexive practice embedded in the
governance processes. This could be achieved by a specific regular
agenda item on project learnings built into project meeting
governance, and actions recorded and implemented focused
on using these learnings to drive improvements within the
organisation and its governance for sustainability.
The development of a community of practice for the
repurposing of a university towards sustainability should not
be exclusive to those involved in direct governance and
decision making, but should include interaction between diverse
stakeholders to develop more deliberative forms of engagement
(Hammond, 2020) and integrate different perspectives. Yet
power dynamics and organisational cultures can still limit
the effectiveness of universities as learning organisations. For
example, institutional governance systems rarely learn from
academic expertise within their own organisation as university
staff are typically not empowered to create knowledge on behalf
of their institution (White and Weathersby, 2005).
A traditional view of governance and organisational decision
making assumes a need to reduce uncertainty before taking
action. This is problematic in the context of repurposing
universities due to the complexity of the systems and the
unknown pathways and processes required. Biggs et al. (2012, p.
433) state that “viewing complexity simply as the unknown tends
to overwhelm managers and lead to gridlock and stagnation.”
Such a view can lead to a heavy investment in monitoring
and data collection of current systems, and significant time
Frontiers in Sustainability | 13 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
and resources being used in monitoring the current situation
before acting. This can be seen in the number of initiatives
within universities to “map” sustainability activity. Such is the
urgency of the sustainability issues that our society faces and our
acknowledgement of the unsustainability of many of our systems,
that we argue that resources should be prioritised towards action,
with monitoring and learning focused on interventions and
action rather than waiting until mapping of the current situation
has been undertaken.
Action to repurpose a university towards sustainability
requires management experiments that support learning (Biggs
et al., 2012) and the willingness to experiment and learn
from action and reflection, on both the success and failures
that result. Yet higher levels in university structures may
provide little opportunity for experimentation, meaning that
experimentation takes place at smaller scales, within individual
departments. Such smaller scale experimentation may be referred
to as “pilots,” yet without connectivity to the wider university
governance structures there may be limited opportunity for the
wider organisation to learn from the success and failures of
these experiments. This highlights both the important role of
polycentricity in sustainability governance (principle 1) but also
its connectivity (principle 2).
How Resilience Principles Help us
Understand the Governance of
Sustainability in Universities
When exploring how to repurpose universities towards
sustainability, much of the literature emphasises case studies of
successful initiatives (Corcoran et al., 2004). This is underpinned
by an assumption that replicating and learning from successful
initiatives is how change is made within universities. However,
these assumptions are generally left untested, and little
consideration is given to understanding the processes through
which institutions can (or cannot) be changed. However, in
order for strategic and timely action to be taken, it is necessary
to understand the pathways through which change happens.
Addressing this gap, our article offers a non-normative framing
of social-ecological resilience to understand how change
processes happen in universities. The four resilience principles
explored in this paper help us develop important insights
with practical implications and a framework of questions for
practitioners to ask themselves about university governance for
sustainability. This section draws together some of these insights
and the framework.
The Tension Between Efficiency and Resilience
In most Western countries, universities are underpinned by
a paradigm of efficiency, stemming from the neoliberalisation
of the university, and increasingly business-orientated models
of governance (Bessant et al., 2015). Universities have been
criticised for undermining their core values and the inevitable
trade-offs as they embraced their position within a neoliberal
ethos (Saravanamuthu and Tinker, 2002; Devaney and Weber,
2003), while others have demonstrated how neoliberal and new
public management instruments can be used to help “steer” and
“nudge” sustainability (Bessant et al., 2015).
This drive for efficiency has spillover effects into sustainability
governance and the context in which sustainability repurposing
must take place. A drive for efficiency reduces redundancy,
reflected in sustainability leadership or “championing” often
being restricted to one individual. Efficiency drives can also lead
to overwork of these individuals, leading to simpler “doing-
less bad” than more generative “doing more good” approaches,
erosion of relationships (connectivity), and a lack of diversity
in participation.
There is therefore an inherent tension between efficiency and
resilience, a phenomenon which has been previously observed by
resilience scholars (e.g., Holling and Gunderson, 2002; Golgeci
et al., 2020). Efficient systems can be more vulnerable to shocks
and pressures. This means that highly efficient but unsustainable
systems within universities may be ones that can be most readily
shifted. For example, where decisions are very “top down” and
limited to a very limited number of people, recruitment of a
new leader specifically with a sustainability leaning can support
a more rapid shift towards sustainability. However, where there
is positive sustainability action, it also means that there needs
to be redundancies built into sustainability work, for example a
number of individuals involved in sustainability initiatives, that
although seeming inefficient at times, can ensure that the entire
sustainability agenda will be less likely to be derailed in the event
of a failure or collapse of one initiative. This can be achieved also
through having multiple overlapping initiatives with different
loci of control.
From our analysis, it can also be seen how important it is, from
a resilience perspective, that sustainability work happens in many
places in the system. Therefore, it is imperative that sustainability
work is driven by a team. Given the lack of connectivity between
university domains, having sustainability champions who work
with and tend to different matters can help to ensure work
is taking place in each of these different domains, and also
coordinate work between domains.
The Importance of People and the Relationships
Between Them
In our analysis of connectivity, we saw that sustainability work
is heavily dependent on certain individuals (as or within nodes)
and their relationships, both within and outside of the university.
Hence even where formal structures may promote connectivity,
the quality of connectivity is still dependent on individuals and
their relationships. This focus on the quality of relationships
between individuals makes the sustainability agenda vulnerable
to staff leaving, making the connectivity “brittle.” However,
connectivity is always in flux, with strength and structure
varying over time through planned changes in formal governance
structures, or staff turnover. A key question is then how do
we try to ensure “quality” connections, or rather, the fostering
of good relationships? The answer must surely lie in valuing
and developing the “soft” relationship skills of not just key
sustainability actors, but all within the university system.
Frontiers in Sustainability | 14 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Connectivity is a subjective feature. Universities may be
resilient to change due to limited connectivity meaning that
disturbances towards sustainability do not transfer through
the system, or highly connected systems may be resilient to
disturbance towards sustainability, due to a strong, resistant
organisational culture. However, some of the negative elements
of either too much or too little connectivity, can be offset by
increased diversity (principle 1) ensuring different voices are
heard and that there is diversity in leadership. Within the context
of ecosystem services, Biggs et al. (2012) argue that if those
who use certain ecosystem services are not engaged in their
management, then critical knowledge of the system’s function
and monitoring can be missed. The same can be said within
the context of university sustainability governance, highlighting
the need for connectivity to hear voices from different parts of
the system.
Controversially, we question the imperative for highly
connected sustainability activity. Those seeking to repurpose
universities for sustainability can often be heard lamenting
that pockets of good practice are isolated. Too much focus on
increasing connectivity and understanding everything happening
within the university can waste limited resources and also lead
to “ownership” of sustainability by a small group of actors,
making it vulnerable to changes in governance structure. In
contrast, greater modularity in where “repurposing” activities are
driven from can lead to enhanced resilience through ensuring
multiple centres from where sustainability transformation
can ripple.
Patiently Paying Attention to the Undercurrents
Time and temporality in higher education has come into
focus in recent years through, for example, the theorisation
of slow scholarship (Mountz et al., 2015) and how different
members of the university experience time (Laycock Pedersen
et al., 2019). The third resilience principle, monitoring slow
variables and feedbacks, adds a new dimension to this
discussion. While applying a complex adaptive systems lens
to an organisation or even a university is not new, the third
resilience principle highlights how long-term monitoring can
help us identify whether we could be close to crossing a
tipping point.
Paying attention to slow variables and feedbacks reminds us
of the need to be patient, and not to expect our actions to have
direct and immediate consequences, and the need to monitor
change and variables over longer timescales. In complex adaptive
systems, actions can have indirect or delayed consequences.
Bringing attention to pro-sustainability changes in slow
variables can be used to drive change at an institutional
level, while less favourable changes in these slow variables can
alert institutions and sustainability champions to forthcoming
pressure or possible shocks to the higher education landscape,
giving time to prepare and plan for such situations.
Learning About Learning
Learning and experimentation are critical to repurposing
the university towards sustainability, because we need to
find ways to do things differently, including changing our
worldviews and paradigms. Working towards sustainability is
inherently uncertain and situated within complex adaptive
systems, requiring reflexive approaches to governance to be
able to respond quickly to threats as well as to be “creatively
opportunistic” (Lichtenstein, 2000).
Learning does not only happen through success, but through
failure. However, failure is rarely discussed (Harrowell et al.,
2018; Holdsworth, 2020) limiting our opportunities to learn from
failure. For us to unlock the value of failure, we must destigmatise
it. This can be done through sharing the experience and the
responsibility, as well as talking more openly about our failures
(Whittle et al., 2020).
How This Paper Advances Scholarship
About Resilience
A Non-normative Orientation of Resilience
This paper offers a novel contribution to organisational
resilience research, as most resilience scholarship in the study
of organisations or groups of people uses a normative approach
where resilience is understood to be a fundamentally good
thing (e.g., Evans et al., 2021). In addition to allowing us
to identify ways to improve the resilience of already existing
sustainability initiatives, we have shown that using resilience
in a non-normative way is possible, and that applying a
non-normative resilience lens to sustainability governance can
help identify how to destabilise unsustainable elements of
a system.
For example, we have described how a non-normative
understanding of resilience can help us understand how
unsustainable cultures within the highly-connected higher
education sector or in a university can be disrupted. Since high
connectivity can lead to synchronised behaviour, disrupting these
connections, through weakening them, developing alternative
networks, or reconfiguring the network’s constellation, can
create opportunities for experimenting and creating new, more
sustainable norms.
Furthermore, Biggs et al.’s (2012, 2015) principles urge
monitoring of slow variables. Keeping a close eye to cracks and
fissures that may be emerging within a university’s organisational
culture, or those appearing in the higher education sector at large,
can help sustainability change-makers know where and how to
apply pressure to accelerate sustainability transformation. For
example, re-orienting research language around impact to mirror
the emerging impact and knowledge exchange agendas can help
leverage change towards sustainability in an organisation, using
external shifting paradigms.
The resilience principles themselves are value-neutral
descriptors. This helps us understand how the properties of a
university that has a deeply entrenched unsustainable purpose
can be the same properties that a repurposed, more sustainable
university will need to be resilient to the tides of change in the
university sector.
Operationalising Resilience Principles in the “Middle
Ground” and in Different Contexts
The literature on resilience has been critiqued for a lack of
operationalisation of the concept (Biggs et al., 2012; Laycock
Frontiers in Sustainability | 15 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
TABLE 2 | Questions for reflection on sustainability governance based on the four resilience principles.
Resilience principle Questions for reflection on sustainability governance
Manage diversity and redundancy ·How diverse is participation in sustainability activity and governance?
·How diverse is leadership for sustainability?
·How diverse are the areas where sustainability is considered?
·How are different voices within the system heard?
·Are different voices heard in a way that minimises tokenism and power dynamics?
·How are diverse views and approaches handled so as to maintain effective working relationships and decision making?
·Is sustainability activity driven from multiple different university domains?
·Is sustainability tackled from a diversity of angles covering both environmental and social sustainability?
·Is there redundancy in the system?
·Are there multiple ‘sustainability champions’?
·Are there multiple people involved in sustainability projects, able to pick up on responsibilities if one person leaves?
·Is sustainability driven at different levels within the university?
Manage connectivity ·What is connectivity like across different levels of the university?
·What is connectivity like across different university domains?
·What is connectivity like across different disciplines?
·What is connectivity like across students and staff?
·What is the quality of relationships between key nodes? Do multiple people have these relationships?
·How are relationship skills developed and valued?
·What connectivity with external partners does the university have?
·Does the university bring other actors together to support sustainability initiatives within and outside of the university?
·What networks and alliances with other universities can be utilised to drive sustainability?
Manage slow variables and feedback ·What are the internal and external slow variables at play that affect sustainability in universities both negatively and positively?
·How close to a tipping point are slow variables?
·How can these internal or external slow variables be used to leverage transformation for sustainability?
·What is the organisational culture? How does this support or challenge sustainability transformation?
·How is impact of sustainability interventions monitored?
·Is impact monitored over long timescales? Are indirect consequences considered?
·What is the slow direction of travel internally and externally?
·How does organisational communication and language impact organisational culture?
·How is organisational culture affected by reward and recognition such a promotion, awards or funding?
·What are the reinforcing feedbacks that impede sustainability transformation?
·What long-term monitoring feedbacks could be put in place?
Encourage learning and experimentation ·Is learning from projects formally reflected on and recorded?
·Is learning implemented and recorded?
·Is there academic expertise in the institution that can be bought to bear on sustainability transformation?
·What is the balance of resources put to understanding existing activity vs. driving action?
·Is experimentation encouraged?
·How are small scale pilots scaled up? What processes are there to support this?
·How is learning embedded in governance?
·How is failure handled? Is failure discussed openly and used for learning?
·How is double and triple loop learning built into governance processes?
Pedersen, 2019). There are also critiques about a lack of studies in
the “middle ground” between very general and very specific case
studies. This article outlines how these principles can be applied
in this “missing middle ground” and within the context of higher
education institutions.
Through this paper, we have identified key variables within
a higher education governance context that can be used to
flesh out existing generic principles for building resilience.
This is important because, although these principles themselves
are valuable for operationalising the concept of resilience,
their application within different contexts will likely differ
drastically. As such, this research contributes to a body of
scholarship applying these principles in different contexts,
and furthers learning about how such principles can be used
in enabling improved governance for sustainability across
different contexts.
Recommendations for Practitioners
Drawing on the analyses within this paper, a series of
recommendations relating to each principle can be made,
to enable practitioners to further leverage universities
towards sustainability, and increase the resilience of positive
sustainability developments.
Diversity should be sought in participation in sustainability,
domains in which sustainability is tackled, and levels of
governance where sustainability is embedded. Some elements
of redundancy should be built in to ensure that the loss of
individual sustainability actors does not destabilise positive
sustainability improvements that have been made.
Assessing and enhancing connectivity of sustainability actors
across different system domains and levels can ensure the
integration of sustainability activity into diverse parts of the
Frontiers in Sustainability | 16 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
system. Key sustainability actors can act as essential nodes to
connect activity. The skill sets of relationship building across
diverse actors should be acknowledged and actively sought
for these roles. Sustainability co-ordinating roles should not
be undertaken by a single individual, which leads to system
brittleness, and should be sought at different levels within the
system hierarchy.
Attention should be paid to slow variables and feedbacks.
Some slow variables may be outside of an organisation’s
control, yet some changes in slow variables (e.g., increasing
emphasis on research impact and knowledge exchange) can
be co-opted for sustainability re-purposing. Organisational
culture is a key slow variable, and can be influenced
through feedbacks including internal communication
and resource allocation, and language in line with
sustainability repurposing.
Ensuring explicit and embedded structures to support
organisational learning and reflection that incorporate double
and triple loop learning is essential to repurposing the
university towards sustainability. This may involve critically
questioning what is being measured and monitored, how such
data is used in learning, as well as the willingness to experiment
and to fail and to share and learn from failures.
Table 2 outlines a framework of questions structured around the
four resilience principles, to enable sustainability practitioners in
universities to reflect upon their governance for sustainability,
and identify areas to leverage change through either enhancing
the resilience of sustainability elements or eroding the resilience
of unsustainable elements. Ultimately, this paper appeals to the
practitioner to use these resilience principles not just to improve
the resilience of current aspects of sustainability, but to question
how the current system can be destabilised to create space
for sustainability.
Universities have been conceptualised in this paper as complex
adaptive and socio-ecological systems that require repurposing
towards sustainability. We have used (Laycock Pedersen et al.,
2019) adaptation of Biggs et al.’s (2012, 2015) resilience principles
in a novel non-normative manner, to address how to decrease
resilience to destabilize our prevailing unsustainable university
systems, as well as seeing how these principles can help us adapt
university governance for sustainability.
We have highlighted the importance of diversity in
participants and spheres of sustainability activity as well
as the importance of embedding some redundancy within
sustainability governance structures, and the danger of a
focus on maximising efficiency. We highlight the importance
of connectivity between different actors within the system,
mediated strongly by the quality of these connections and the
strength of relationships between nodes. Slow variables such
as academic traditions and organisational culture as well as
national policy and regulation trends provide an important and
shifting backdrop that influence universities’ engagement
with repurposing towards sustainability. Monitoring of
these slow variables and reflecting on their influence can
be important to flexible and adaptive management within
sustainability governance. Feedbacks within these systems
present potential leverage points to destabilize currently
unsustainable university systems. Finally, we highlight
how developing explicit structures and culture to facilitate
learning, that critically reflect through double and triple
loop learning and engage with failure, are at the core
of a university genuinely working towards repurposing
towards sustainability.
The original contributions presented in the study are included
in the article, further inquiries can be directed to the
corresponding author.
All authors equally contributed to the article and approved the
submitted version.
Albrecht, P., Burandt, S., and Schaltegger, S. (2007). Do sustainability projects
stimulate organisational learning in universities? Int. J. Sustainab. Higher Educ.
8, 403–415. doi: 10.1108/14676370710823573
Andereggen, S., Vischer, M., and Boutellier, R. (2012). Honest but broke: The
dilemma of universities acting as honest brokers. Technol. Soc. 34, 118–126.
doi: 10.1016/j.techsoc.2012.02.005
Anderies, J. M., Janssen, M. A., and Ostrom, E. (2004). A framework to analyze the
robustness of social-ecological systems from an institutional perspective. Ecol.
Soc. 9:18. doi: 10.5751/ES-00610-090118
Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. J. Am. Inst. Plann. 35,
216–224. doi: 10.1080/01944366908977225
Barrineau, S., and Anderson, L. (2018). Learning “betwixt and between”:
Opportunities and challenges for student-driven partnership. Int. J. Stud.
Partners 2, 16–32. doi: 10.15173/ijsap.v2i1.3224
Barth, M., and Rieckmann, M. (2012). Academic staff development as a catalyst for
curriculum change towards education for sustainable development: an output
perspective. J. Clean. Prod. 26, 28–36. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.12.011
Barth, M., and Rieckmann, M. (2016). “State of the art in research on
higher education for sustainable development,” in: Routledge Handbook
of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, eds M. Barth, G.
Michelsen, M. Rieckmann, and I. Thomas (Oxfordshire: Routledge).
doi: 10.4324/9781315852249
Bauer, M., Bormann, I., Kummer, B., Niedlich, S., and Rieckmann, M.
(2018). Sustainability governance at universities: using a governance
equalizer as a research heuristic. Higher Educ. Policy 31, 491–511.
doi: 10.1057/s41307-018-0104-x
Bessant, S. E., and Robinson, Z. P. (2019). Rating and rewarding higher
education for sustainable development research within the marketised
higher education context: experiences from English universities.
Environ. Educ. Res. 25, 548–565. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2018.154
Bessant, S. E., Robinson, Z. P., and Ormerod, R. M. (2015).
Neoliberalism, new public management and the sustainable development
agenda of higher education: history, contradictions and synergies.
Environ. Educ. Res. 21, 417–432. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2014.99
Frontiers in Sustainability | 17 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Bessant, S. E. F. (2017). Exploring the Interface of Marketisation and Education for
Sustainable Development in English Higher Education. Unpublished PhD, Keele
University, UK.
Biermann, F., Abbott, K., Andresen, S., Bäckstrand, K., Bernstein, S., Betsill,
M. M., et al. (2012). Transforming governance and institutions for global
sustainability: key insights from the Earth System Governance Project. Curr.
Opin. Environ. Sustain. 4, 51–60. doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.014
Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., Biggs, D., Bohensky, E. L., BurnSilver, S., Cundill,
G., et al. (2012). Toward principles for enhancing the resilience
of ecosystem services. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37, 421–448.
doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-051211-123836
Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., and Schoon, M. L. (2015). Principles for Building Resilience:
Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge:
Cambridge University. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781316014240
Birch, E., Perry, D. C., and Taylor, H. L. (2013). Universities as Anchor Institutions.
J. Higher Educ. Outreach Engage. 17, 7–15.
Bogenschneider, K. (2020). Positioning universities as honest knowledge brokers:
Best practices for communicating research to policymakers. Fam. Relat. 69,
628–643. doi: 10.1111/fare.12339
Brinkhurst, M., Rose, P., Maurice, G., and Ackerman, J. D. (2011). Achieving
campus sustainability: top-down, bottom-up, or neither? Int. J. Sustainab.
Higher Educ. 12, 338–354. doi: 10.1108/14676371111168269
Brooks, R., Byford, K., and Sela, K. (2015). The changing role of students’
unions within contemporary higher education. J. Educ. Policy 30, 165–181.
doi: 10.1080/02680939.2014.924562
Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. M., and Abel, N. (2001). From metaphor
to measurement: resilience of what to what? Ecosystems 4, 765–781.
doi: 10.1007/s10021-001-0045-9
Cebrián, G., Grace, M., and Humphris, D. (2013). Organisational learning towards
sustainability in higher education. Sustainab. Account. Manage. Policy J. 4,
285–306. doi: 10.1108/SAMPJ-12-2012-0043
Chapin, F. S., Kofinas, G. P., and Folke, C. (2009). Principles of Ecosystem
Stewardship: Resilience-Based Natural Resource Management in a Changing
World. New York, NY: Springer.
Cilliers, P., Biggs, H. C., Blignaut, S., Choles, A. G., Hofmeyr, J. H. S., Jewitt, G. P.,
et al. (2013). Complexity, modelling, and natural resource management. Ecol.
Soc. 18:180301. doi: 10.5751/ES-05382-180301
cera, J., Mikusi´
nski, G., Binka, B., Calafate, L., Calheiros, C., Cardoso, A., et al.
(2019). Managing diversity: the challenges of inter-university cooperation in
sustainability education. Sustainability 11:5610. doi: 10.3390/su11205610
CIVICUS (2020). Participatory Governance Toolkit. Available online at: https://
participatory-governance- toolkit (accessed August 11, 2021).
Clarvis, M. H., Bohensky, E., and Yarime, M. (2015). Can resilience thinking
inform resilience investments? Learning from resilience principles for disaster
risk reduction. Sustainability 7, 9048–9066. doi: 10.3390/su7079048
Colding, J., and Barthel, S. (2019). Exploring the social-ecological systems
discourse 20 years later. Ecol. Soc. 24:240102. doi: 10.5751/ES-10598-240102
Collins, K., and Ison, R. (2009). Jumping off Arnstein’s ladder: social learning as
a new policy paradigm for climate change adaptation. Environ. Policy Gov. 19,
358–373. doi: 10.1002/eet.523
Compagnucci, L., and Spigarelli, F. (2020). The Third Mission of the university:
A systematic literature review on potentials and constraints. Technol. Forecast.
Soc. Change 161:120284. doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2020.120284
Corcoran, P. B., Walker, K. E., and Wals, A. E. (2004). Case studies, make-
your-case studies, and case stories: a critique of case-study methodology
in sustainability in higher education. Environ. Educ. Res. 10, 7–21.
doi: 10.1080/1350462032000173670
Cotton, D., Winter, J., and Bailey, I. (2013). Researching the hidden curriculum:
intentional and unintended messages. J. Geography Higher Educ. 37, 192–203.
doi: 10.1080/03098265.2012.733684
Croucher, G., Wen, W., Coates, H., and Goedegebuure, L. (2020). Framing research
into university governance and leadership: Formative insights from a case
study of Australian higher education. Educ. Manage. Administr. Leadership 48,
248–269. doi: 10.1177/1741143219893101
Devaney, M., and Weber, W. (2003). Abandoning the public good: how
universities have helped privatize higher education. J. Acad. Ethics 1, 175–179.
doi: 10.1023/B:JAET.0000006857.63363.15
Elmqvist, T. (2017). Development: Sustainability and resilience differ. Nature
546:352. doi: 10.1038/546352d
Etzkowitz, H., Webster, A., Gebhardt, C., and Terra B. R. C. (2000). The future
of the university, the university of the future: evolution of ivory tower to
entrepreneurial paradigm. Res. Policy 2, 313–330.
European Commission (2020). Responsible Research and Innovation.
Horizon (2020).
Evans, J., Jones, R., Karvonen, A., Millard, L., and Wendler, J. (2015). Living labs
and co-production: university campuses as platforms for sustainability science.
Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustainab. 16, 1–6. doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2015.06.005
Evans, J., and Karvonen, A. (2014). ’Give me a laboratory and I will lower your
carbon footprint’ Urban laboratories and the governance of low-carbon futures.
Int. J. Urban Reg. Res. 38, 413–430. doi: 10.1111/1468-2427.12077
Evans, V., Cregan, K., and Wall, T. (2021). “Organizational resilience and
sustainable development,” in Encyclopedia of the United Nations Sustainability
Goals: Good Health & Wellbeing, ed W. L. Filho (Springer).
Fadeeva, Z., and Mochizuki, Y. (2010). Higher education for today and tomorrow;
university appraisal for diversity, innovation and change towards sustainable
development. Sustainab. Sci. 5, 249–256. doi: 10.1007/s11625-010-0106-0
Folke, C. (2016). Resilience (Republished). Ecol. Soc. 21:44.
doi: 10.5751/ES-09088-210444
Furey, S., Springer, P., and Parsons, C. (2014). Positioning university as a
brand: distinctions between the brand promise of Russell Group, 1994 Group,
University Alliance, and Million+universities. J. Market. Higher Educ. 24,
99–121. doi: 10.1080/08841241.2014.919980
Golgeci, I., Yildiz, H. E., and Andersson, U. R. (2020). The rising tensions between
efficiency and resilience in global value chains in the Post-COVID-19 world.
Trans. Corp. J. 27:1410 doi: 10.18356/99b1410f-en
Hammond, M. (2020). Sustainability as a cultural transformation:
the role of deliberative democracy. Environ. Politics 29, 173–192.
doi: 10.1080/09644016.2019.1684731
Harrowell, E., Davies, T., and Disney, T. (2018). Making space
for failure in geographic research. Profess. Geograp. 7, 230–238.
doi: 10.1080/00330124.2017.1347799
Healey, M., Flint, A., and Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement Through Partnership:
Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Available at:
Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching
in higher education | Advance HE (
HEFCE (2005). Sustainable Development in Higher Education. Consultation on
a Support Strategy and Action Plan. Higher Education Funding Council
for England.
Hodgkinson, P. F. M., and Stewart, J. (1998). Towards Universities as Learning
Organisations. Learn. Organ. 5, 228–38.
Holdsworth, C. (2020). A manifesto for failure: Depersonalising, collectivising
and embracing failure in research funding. Emotion Space Soc. 37:100744.
doi: 10.1016/j.emospa.2020.100744
Holling, C. S., and Gunderson, L. H. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding
Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, DC:
Island Press.
Hoover, E., and Harder, M. K. (2015). What lies beneath the surface? The hidden
complexities of organizational change for sustainability in higher education. J.
Clean. Product. 106, 175–188. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.01.081
Hussain, T., Eskildsen, J., Edgeman, R., Ismail, M., Shoukry, A. M., and Gani,
S. (2019). Imperatives of sustainable university excellence: a conceptual
framework. Sustain. 11:5242. doi: 10.3390/su11195242
Jaakkola, E. (2020). Designing conceptual articles: four approaches. AMS Rev. 10,
18–26. doi: 10.1007/s13162-020-00161-0
Jary, D. (2005). UK Higher education policy and the ’global third way’. Policy Polit.
33, 637–655. doi: 10.1332/030557305774329163
Johnson, M. T. (2020). The knowledge exchange framework: understanding
parameters and the capacity for transformative engagement. Stud. Higher Educ.
2020, 1–18. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1735333
Jones, P., Selby, D., and Sterling, S. (eds.). (2010). “Introduction,” in: Sustainability
Education: Perspectives and Practices Across Higher Education, (London:
Jucker, R. (2014). Do We Know What We Are Doing? Reflections on Learning,
Knowledge, Economics, Community and Sustainability. Cambridge: Cambridge
Scholars Publishing.
Frontiers in Sustainability | 18 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Knight, P. (2005). Unsustainable Developments. The Guardian. Available online
administration (accessed February 8, 2005).
Kummu, M., Kinnunen, P., Lehikoinen, E., Porkka, M., Queiroz, C., Röös, E., et al.
(2020). Interplay of trade and food system resilience: Gains on supply diversity
over time at the cost of trade independency. Global Food Sec. 24:100360.
doi: 10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100360
Laycock Pedersen, R. (2019). Understanding and Managing the Impacts of
Transience in Student-Led University Food Gardens (Doctoral dissertation,
Keele University).
Laycock Pedersen, R., Robinson, Z. P., and Surman, E. (2019). Understanding
transience and participation in university student-led food gardens.
Sustainability 11:2788. doi: 10.3390/su11102788
Leal Filho, W., Salvia, A. L., Frankenberger, F., Akib, N. A. M., Sen, S. K.,
Sivapalan, S., et al. (2020). Governance and sustainable development
at higher education institutions. Environ. Dev. Sustainab. 23, 1–19.
doi: 10.1007/s10668-020-00859-y
Lichtenstein, B. B. (2000). Self-organized transitions: A pattern amid the
chaos of transformative change. Acad. Manage. Exec. 14, 128–141.
doi: 10.5465/ame.2000.3979821
Lozano, R. (2006). Incorporation and institutionalization of SD into universities:
breaking through barriers to change. J. Clean. Prod. 14, 787–796.
doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2005.12.010
Lukman, R., and Glaviˇ
c, P. (2007). What are the key elements of a
sustainable university? Clean Technol. Environ. Policy 9, 103–114.
doi: 10.1007/s10098-006-0070-7
McCoshan, A., and Martin, S. (2012). Evaluation of the Impact of the Green
Academy Programme and Case Studies.. Available online at: http://www.
studies.pdf (accessed April 18, 2016).
McCrory, G., Schäpke, N., Holmén, J., and Holmberg, J. (2020). Sustainability-
orientated labs in real-world contexts: an exploratory review. J. Clean. Product.
277:123202. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.123202
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., and Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a
feather: homophily in social networks. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 27, 415–444.
doi: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415
Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng,
B., Felten, P., et al. (2017). A systematic literature review of students as
partners in higher education. Int. J. Stud. Part. 1:3119. doi: 10.15173/ijsap.v1i
Michelsen, G. (2016). “Policy, politics and polity in higher education for
sustainable development,” in: Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for
Sustainable Development, eds M. Barth, G. Michelsen, M. Rieckmann, and I.
Thomas (Oxfordshire: Routledge).
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M.,
et al. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through
collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: Int. J. Crit. Geograp. 14,
National Union of Students (2021). Responsible Futures. Available online at: https:// (accessed August 11, 2021).
Newman, J. (2007). An organisational change management
framework for sustainability. Greener Manage. Int. 57, 65–75.
doi: 10.9774/GLEAF.3062.2007.sp.00006
Niedlich, S., Bauer, M., Doneliene, M., Jaeger, L., Rieckmann, M., and Bormann,
I. (2020a). Assessment of sustainability governance in higher education
institutions-A systemic tool using a governance equalizer. Sustainability
12:1816. doi: 10.3390/su12051816
Niedlich, S., Kummer, B., Bauer, M., Rieckmann, M., and Bormann, I. (2020b).
Cultures of sustainability governance in higher education institutions: A multi-
case study of dimensions and implications. Higher Educ. Q. 74, 373–390.
doi: 10.1111/hequ.12237
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2003). (ed.).
“Changing patterns of governance in higher education,” in Education Policy
Orr, D. W. (2001). “Foreword,” in Sustainable Education: Revisioning Learning and
Change. ed S. Sterling (Devon: Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books).
Orr, D. W. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education,Environment, and the Human
Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Oxford (2006). White Paper on University Governance. Oxford: Oxford
University Gazette.
Pemberton, S. (2017). The Importance of Super-Diverse Places in Shaping
Residential Mobility Patterns.A Report to the Leverhulme Trust. Keele:
Keele University.
Perkin, H. (2007). “History of universities,” in International Handbook of Higher
Education (Dordrecht: Springer). doi: 10.1007/978-1-4020-4012-2_10
Pinheiro, R., and Young, M. (2017). “The university as an adaptive resilient
organization: A complex systems perspective,” in Theory and Method in Higher
Education Research, eds H. Huisman and M. Tight (Emerald Publishing
Rath, K., and Schmitt, C. T. (2017). “Sustainability at universities: Degrees of
institutionalization for sustainability at German higher education institutions-
A categorization pattern,” in Handbook of Theory and Practice of Sustainable
Development in Higher Education, eds W. Leal Filho, L. Brandli, P. Castro and
J. Newman (Cham: Springer). doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-47868-5_28
Reed, M. S., Evely, A. C., Cundill, G., Fazey, I., Glass, J., Laing, A., et al. (2010).
What is social learning? Ecol. Soc. 15:1504r01. doi: 10.5751/ES-03564-1504r01
Robinson, Z. P. (2019). “Geography as responsibility: sustainability through
teaching and learning within geography,” in Handbook for Teaching and
Learning in Geography, eds H. Walkington, J. Hill, and S. Dyer (Edward Elgar
Publishing). doi: 10.4337/9781788116497.00028
Robinson, Z. P., Catney, P. J. J., Calver, P., and Peacock, A. (2021). “Universities
as living labs for climate praxis,” in Addressing the Climate Crisis: Local
Climate Action in Theory and Practice, eds C. Howarth, M. Lane, and A.
Slevin (Palgrave).
Röös, E., Bajzelj, B., Weil, C., Andersson, E., Bossio, D., and Gordon, L. J. (2021).
Moving beyond organic-A food system approach to assessing sustainable
and resilient farming. Global Food Sec. 28:100487. doi: 10.1016/j.gfs.2020.1
Saravanamuthu, K., and Tinker, T. (2002). The university in the new
corporate world. Criti. Perspect. Account. 13, 545–554. doi: 10.1006/cpac.200
Schein, E. H. (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco,
CA, Jossey-Bass.
Schoon, M. L., Robards, M. D., Meek, C. L., and Galaz, V. (2015). “Principle
7 - Promote polycentric governance systems,” in Principles for Building
Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems, eds R.
Biggs, M. Schlüter, and M. L. Schoon (Cambridge: Cambridge University).
doi: 10.1017/CBO9781316014240.010
Scott, G., Tilbury, D., Sharp, L., and Deane, E. (2012). Turnaround Leadership for
Sustainability in Higher Education.Office of Learning and Teaching, Sydney:
Australian Government.
Scott, J. C. (2006). The mission of the university: Medieval to postmodern
transformations. J. Higher Educ. 77, 1–39. doi: 10.1353/jhe.2006.0007
Scott, W. A. H., and Gough, S. R. (2003). Sustainable Development and Learning:
Framing the Issues. London: Routledge.
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning
Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.
Senge, P. M. (1997). The fifth discipline. Measur. Busin. Excel. 3, 46–51.
doi: 10.1108/eb025496
Simonsen, S. H., Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., Schoon, M., Bohensky, E., Cundill, G., et al.
(2014). Applying Resilience Thinking: Seven Principles for Building Resilience in
Social-Ecological Systems. Stockholm: Stockholm Resilience Centre.
SOU 2019:13 (2019). Agenda 2030 och Sverige: Världens utmaning - världens
möjlighet. Available online at:
statens-offentliga- utredningar/2019/03/sou-201913/
Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change.
Devon, UK: United Kingdom, Green Books for the Schumacher Society.
Sterling, S. (2003). Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in
Education: Explorations in the Context of Sustainability (Doctoral Dissertation,
University of Bath).
Sterling, S. (2013). “The sustainable university: challenge and response,” in The
Sustainable University: Progress and Prospects, eds S. Sterling, L. Maxey, and
H. Luna (Abingdon: Routledge). doi: 10.4324/9780203101780
Sterling, S., and Scott, W. (2008). Higher education and ESD in England: a
critical commentary on recent initiatives. Environ. Educ. Res. 14, 386–398.
doi: 10.1080/13504620802344001
Frontiers in Sustainability | 19 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
Robinson and Laycock Pedersen Resilience Lens for University Sustainability Governance
Sylvestre, P., and Wright, T. (2016). “Organisational change and organisational
learning for promoting higher education for sustainable development,” in
Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development, eds
M. Barth, G. Michelsen, M. Rieckmann, and I. Thomas (Oxfordshire:
Thomas, I. (2016). “Challenges for Implementation of education for sustainable
development in higher education institutions,” in Routledge Handbook of
Higher Education for Sustainable Development, eds M. Barth, G. Michelsen, M.
Rieckmann, and I. Thomas (Oxfordshire: Routledge).
Trakman, L. (2008). Modelling university governance. Higher Educ. Q. 62, 63–83.
doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2273.2008.00384.x
Trencher, G. M. Y., McCormick, K. B., Doll, C. N. H., and Kraines, S.
B. (2014). Beyond the third mission: Exploring the emerging university
function of co-creation for sustainability. Sci. Public Policy 41, 151–179.
doi: 10.1093/scipol/sct044
UKRI (2019). Environmental Sustainability Strategy. Accessed on 10th February
2021. Available at: http://UKRI-050920-SustainabilityStrategy.pdf
UNESCO (2015). Rethinking Education. Towards a Global Common Good?
Available online at:
pdf (accessed October 16, 2016).
UNESCO (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning
Objectives - UNESCO Digital Library. Available online at: https://unesdoc. (accessed August 11, 2021).
UNESCO (2020). Education for Sustainable Development - A Roadmap. Available
online at: (accessed
August 11, 2021).
Vare, P., and Scott, W. (2007). Learning for a change: exploring the relationship
between education and sustainable development. J. Educ. Sustaina. Dev. 1,
191–198. doi: 10.1177/097340820700100209
Vaughter, P., McKenzie, M., Lidstone, L., and Wright, T. (2016). Campus
sustainability governance in Canada. Int. J. Sustainab. Higher Educ. 17, 16–39.
doi: 10.1108/IJSHE-05-2014-0075
Velazquez, L., Munguia, N., Platt, A., and Taddei, J. (2006). Sustainable
university: what can be the matter? J. Clean. Prod. 14, 810–819.
doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2005.12.008
Verhoef, L. A., Bossert, M., Newman, J., Ferraz, F., Robinson, Z. P., Agarwala, Y.,
et al. (2020). “Towards a learning system for university campuses as living labs
for sustainability,” in Universities as Living Labs for Sustainable Development.
World Sustainability Series, eds W. Leal Filho, A. L. Salvia, R. W. Pretorius, L.
L. Brandli, E. Manolas, F. Alves, U. Azeiteiro, J. Rogers, C. Shiel, and A. D. Paco
(Cham: Springer). doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-15604-6_9
Verhulst, E., and Lambrechts, W. (2015). Fostering the incorporation of
sustainable development in higher education. Lessons learned from
a change management perspective. J. Clean. Prod. 106, 189–204.
doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.09.049
Waheed, M. H. (2017). Living Labs Brief What are they? And why are they crucial
for post-16 education? Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges.
Available online at: Launch of the EAUC’s Living Lab Research | EAUC
Walker, B. H., Carpenter, S. R., Rockstrom, J., Crépin, A. S., and Peterson, G. D.
(2012). Drivers, “slow” variables, “fast” variables, shocks, and resilience. Ecol.
Soc. 17:170330. doi: 10.5751/ES-05063-170330
Warwick, P. (2016). An integrated leadership model for leading education for
sustainability in higher education and the vital role of students as change agents.
Manage. Educ. 30, 105–111. doi: 10.1177/0892020616653463
White, J., and Weathersby, R. (2005). Can universities become true learning
organizations? Learn. Organis. 12, 292–298. doi: 10.1108/09696470510592539
Whittle, R., Brewster, L., Medd, W., Simmons, H., Young, R., and Graham,
E. (2020). The ’present-tense’ experience of failure in the university:
Reflections from an action research project. Emotion Space Soc. 37:100719.
doi: 10.1016/j.emospa.2020.100719
Winter, J., and Cotton, D. (2012). Making the hidden curriculum visible:
sustainability literacy in higher education. Environ. Educ. Res. 18, 783–796.
doi: 10.1080/13504622.2012.670207
Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
Publisher’s Note: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of
the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in
this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or
endorsed by the publisher.
Copyright © 2021 Robinson and Laycock Pedersen. This is an open-access article
distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).
The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the
original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original
publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice.
No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these
Frontiers in Sustainability | 20 August 2021 | Volume 2 | Article 674210
... From the CMS perspective, managers primarily serve their own interests and those of the elites, without really generating a broad positive impact in society. This is also reflected in the literature on broader societal themes that seem to be difficult to introduce into education, such as sustainability, citizenship, empowerment and resilience (Bessant et al., 2015;Kopnina & Cherniak, 2016;Lambrechts, 2020;Robinson & Laycock Pedersen, 2021). ...
Full-text available
Studies of marketing for higher education have widely explored the branding activities of specific entities in higher education such as universities and programmes, but they consistently focus on proactive brand management. Proactive strategies are centred around gaining and maintaining a stronger brand. This also implies that reactive strategies are underexplored. Reactive strategies are rather centred around repairing stakeholder trust in contexts where stakeholders criticise the brand. For instance, in the Netherlands, stakeholders have strongly criticised teacher training programmes, by raising fundamental issues concerning their quality and societal relevance. Based on a case study of a specific teacher training programme in the Netherlands, we investigate processes underlying reactive brand management. We identify several micro-level strategies of brand managers such as acknowledgement, normalisation and denial of responsibility. Our assumption is that these kind of strategies can contribute to the continuity of problematic or even highly controversial entities in higher education.
Full-text available
Highlights University living lab success relies on careful navigation of complex relationships between different actors. Maximising change through living labs requires educational objectives and learning processes embedded in governance.
Full-text available
Organic farming aims to minimize negative impacts on the local environment, but its contributions to global food sustainability also depend on a resilient food supply. We studied a farm aiming to move beyond organic and become "a sustainable farm of the future", in the farmer's own words. This meant going beyond local impacts to consider how the farm could contribute to global food security by transitioning to production of more crops for direct human consumption. Over a five-year period (2015-2019), the farm improved on the food security and resilience indicators included in the assessment (e.g., number of persons fed per hectare, diversity of products, and connections), while producing food at greenhouse gas intensity similar to regional averages. This approach of including global food security aspects along with environmental efficiency and resilience in farm-level sustainability assessments provides a way for farmers to engage as globally responsible biosphere stewards.
Full-text available
In recent years, there has been increasing pressure on Universities to shift from focusing primarily on teaching and performing research, and to add an equivocal Third Mission (TM), labelled “a contribution to society”. Unprecedented challenges have been redesigning the missions of Universities, which are often perceived as being at a crossroads. The TM is a multidisciplinary, complex, evolving phenomenon linked to the social and economic mission of Universities in a broad sense. Existing studies mainly focus on Universities in accomplishing their traditional missions, or they offer a narrow perspective of the TM. To the best of our knowledge, no systematic literature review has been performed on the TM to comprehensively explore its heterogeneous functions, constraints, clashes and incorporation within education and research. This paper presents a systematic review of the state of knowledge and develops a novel framework for the enactment of the TM. The paper reveals the potential and the constraints of the recurring themes of the TM, focusing especially on the engagement of non-academic stakeholders. It also suggests, to scholars and policymakers, a selection of measures through which some of the challenges might be faced. The paper offers both a descriptive and a thematic analysis, through examination of 134 peer-reviewed articles which were published between 2004 and May 2019.
Full-text available
There are growing claims that meaningfully engaging with complex sustainability challenges requires change of a systemic nature. In governing transitions to sustainability, laboratories in real world contexts are growing in presence and promise. Yet, they span an array of contexts, conceptualisations and cases, making it difficult to find and relate labs across disciplines. Moreover, it is unclear how these labs vary in their approaches to sustainability, the importance of which has been voiced by the sustainability transitions community. In addressing these concerns, we adopted the broad research question: How can sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts be understood? We systematically reviewed 53 labs from disparate fields of research that broadly share a focus on sustainability. Through a mixed-methods analysis, we present three levels of results. Firstly, we provide an overview of the diversity in distribution, thematic focus and setup of labs. Secondly, we trace 7 different research communities where sustainability-oriented labs have been conceptualized (Living, Urban Living, Real-world, Evolutionary Learning, Urban Transition, Change and Transformation labs). Thirdly, we identify three key dimensions of labs, space, process and organisation, enabling a structured understanding of lab approaches towards sustainability. We then situate our results within salient transitions research areas, namely transition geographies, governance and innovation. In concluding, we point towards fruitful avenues for future research, capable of 1) unpacking lab approaches to sustainability as a dynamic normative property, and 2) providing a basis for complementary case-based comparison.
Full-text available
Governance issues, here interpreted as the provisions of adequate policy frameworks characterised by reliability and accountability, coupled with resources to support their implementation, are known to be the basis for the implementation of sustainable development measures. This paper discusses the influence of governance in the ways sustainability is perceived and practiced in a higher education context. Apart from due considerations to the role of governance as the basis for regulation and institutional actions and management decisions, this paper reports on an empirical study undertaken in a sample of higher education institutions (HEI). This study entailed an analysis of sustainable development policies, certification, organisational structure, budget, reports, team for sustainability, staff training, and challenges for the integration of sustainability and governance. The results suggest that even though there are different opinions and attitudes on the role of governance, it is regarded as an important component in supporting efforts by higher education institutions to include considerations on sustainable development as part of their strategies.
Full-text available
As a powerful means of theory building, conceptual articles are increasingly called for in marketing academia. However, researchers struggle to design and write non-empirical articles because of the lack of commonly accepted templates to guide their development. The aim of this paper is to highlight methodological considerations for conceptual papers: it is argued that such papers must be grounded in a clear research design, and that the choice of theories and their role in the analysis must be explicated and justified. The paper discusses four potential templates for conceptual papers – Theory Synthesis, Theory Adaptation, Typology, and Model – and their respective aims, approach for using theories, and contribution potential. Supported by illustrative examples, these templates codify some of the tacit knowledge that underpins the design of non-empirical papers and will be of use to anyone undertaking, supervising, or reviewing conceptual research.
The odds of failure are greater than those for success when applying for research funding. Yet academics are expected to be successful and win research funding to advance their own careers and the esteem of their institutions. This intensification of applications for research funding means that failure is a fact of life for researchers. In this intervention piece I examine how failure to secure research funding is entrenched in universities and suggest proposals to address this. The manifesto, which are my own views, argues that we need to depersonalise, collectivise and embrace failure.