Innovations in interdisciplinary sustainability institutes at major research universities

The significant sustainability issues of our day present some of the greatest challenges for the next generation. Indeed, the world that our next generation will inherit and live in will be far different from the one we live in today.

Ecosystem changes resulting from climate change, water scarcity, ocean acidification, ecosystem destruction, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and more (all part of what is called the “Anthropocene”), coupled with social changes in the form of income inequality, human rights abuses, and environmental injustice require new ways of conceptualizing and organizing academic research, teaching, and engagement.

The traditional domain for many universities to address sustainability lies within schools of the environment, which were formed in the early 1900s to focus on issues such as forestry, fisheries, and resource management.

This structure, however, may be insufficient to the challenge at hand. Instead, sustainability education and research, especially in research-intensive universities, is finding a welcome home across the campus, in schools of business, architecture, public policy, public health, engineering, law, and many more. This reality creates new challenges for internal coordination and focus, as well as for building external partnerships, fund raising, and engagement.

In response, universities are experimenting with new types of organizational centers and institutes that are intended to make the sum of the diverse activities greater than the individual parts.

In June 2017, the University of Michigan is releasing a report—Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities: Innovations in Cross-Campus and Cross-Disciplinary Models—that examines this new form of cross-disciplinary sustainability institute, exploring their distinctive characteristics, activities, challenges and opportunities. Based on a survey of 18 sustainability institutes that report to a university administrator in central administration (above the level of a school or college dean) at research universities within the Association of American Universities (AAU), topics of reporting, organization, finances, mission/vision, research, education, engagement and campus operations were covered in depth. 

Expenditures at these institutes range from $350,000 to $25 million (average of $7 million) and staff range from one to 60 personnel (average of 22). Faculty director compensation varies from five to 100 percent FTE and affiliated faculty range from 22 to 492 total faculty (average of 146) with most being voluntary but some creating positions for core (100 percent appointment) and joint (≤50% appointment) faculty. 

Just over half of the institutes house separate research centers within them, ranging from one to eight. On average, these institutes maintain a balanced mix of basic and applied research and only half offer degrees, certificates or minors to their students. Twelve institutes report that they pursue projects with campus facilities and operations, using the university campus as a learning laboratory. 

While any attempt to create such a cross-campus sustainability institute should reflect “your institution's culture,” “the intellectual capital and interests of the university faculty,” and “the external challenges requiring input,” five broad themes emerged.

Firstly, these types of institutes can be provocative. While some respondents report that there are no or low tensions between their institute and other units on campus, others highlighted that there are many, both perceived and real, and that directors must actively attend to them.

The most common tension is a sense that these institutes are competing for resources, most notably money and students, with individual schools and departments. One respondent warns that you should “make sure you understand who is threatened by the formation of your institute and be proactive about engaging them and addressing their concerns.”

Secondly, the way to address such concerns is to be complementary and not “competitive with academic departments” by adopting a service mindset where you “become a resource” and “provide services and opportunities to the academic units that they cannot provide for themselves.” One respondent states that, “we operate a little like an internal foundation providing resources, organization, and visibility.”

Thirdly, a key success factor is broad participation, engagement and relationship building across a wide array of stakeholders in the university. “Engagement, engagement, engagement” is the advice from one respondent.  The most important constituency is a fully engaged faculty. As one respondent makes clear, “listen to your faculty. You live and die on their success, not yours.” At the same time, develop “genuine partnership with deans and unit heads” and “find and cultivate multiple strong champions in the upper administration,” preferably the provost or vice president “to ensure that the enterprise is cross-campus

Fourthly, be sure to communicate the value proposition of your institute to the university and your constituencies early and often. As one respondent notes, “you can't communicate too widely or too much.” But consistent with the service mindset, “put more effort into communicating on behalf of your unit, partners, faculty, and staff.” As one respondent explains, “we document how the faculty we co-fund are a disproportionate part of each dean’s success, and how the large interdisciplinary awards that we focus on bring institutional recognition and reward.” Communications should not be focused only internally. “Continue to publicize the special expertise of your institute both on and off campus, and develop regular summaries of ongoing faculty research for news and communication.”

This leads to the fifth, but certainly not the least important, success factor: “be configured to earn your way” by securing steady, reliable, diverse and long-term funding. Diversity of funding sources was repeated often. You “need to have multiple funding sources if you want to be able to grow and have serious impact,” particularly “some combination of indirect flows, tuition recovery, professional tuition returns, and philanthropy will be essential” within “the first few years.” Echoing the service model, “Be sure the funding model, return on grants, and credit for teaching does not compete with but benefits the academic units.”

While the institutes in this study are focused on sustainability, the information and lessons presented could be applicable to any topical institute that seeks to link the multiple disciplines of a university campus into a common endeavor. Thus the new organizational model these institutes represent offers broader value to fostering a “one university” culture that breaks down siloes among schools and encourages multi-disciplinary research in greater service of society.

This report is intended as an aid to these institutes to help them understand their shared role in achieving this important goal of making the sum of the diverse activities of the university greater than the individual parts. Fostering greater interconnections among the many disciplines in a university is necessary for both addressing the major issues of our day, and reinvigorating the vitality of the university research enterprise.


Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan—a position that holds an appointment in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. Andy also serves as Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. Follow Andy on Twitter @HoffmanAndy.

Jessica L. Axson is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Ault Research Group in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, within the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She was also awarded a Dow Sustainability Fellowship.


Editor's Note: The University of Michigan's report—Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities: Innovations in Cross-Campus and Cross-Disciplinary Models—is funded with support by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. The Mitchell Foundation's Sustainability Education Program utilizes the link between the foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the university community in Texas as the basis for supporting the creation of a statewide, state-of-the-art, university-based network of academic sustainability science programs. For more information, click here.


Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.


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