8 Students as Drivers of Change: Advancing Sustainability Science, Confronting Society’s Grand Challenges

Carla Carlson

Carla Carlson, PhD is a special consultant to the Grand Challenges Research Initiative within the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, University of Minnesota

Rising sea levels and untoward outcomes from levee and dam construction have reduced the home of a community of Louisiana’s Native Americans from a 22,000-acre island to an isolated and disappearing 320-acre spot of land. Isle de Jean Charles, about 80 miles south of New Orleans, is now distinguished as the location of the first climate refugees in the United States (Isle de Jean Charles Band, 2018; the State of Louisiana, 2018). The reality of this human-induced assault on the bayou environment and the people who live there is fraught with tensions across federal, state, local, and tribal governments. The tensions from a systems-thinking perspective are complex and include cultures, ecosystem distress, geography, money, power and politics.

Moving up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Minneapolis, Minnesota suburb of Saint Louis Park, a high school student organizer says, “I care about climate change because it’s the basis for doing everything else. If we don’t do something now, people in the future won’t be able to do the things they love.” Katie Christiansen is a leader of the Saint Louis Park High School’s Roots and Shoots Club (Yarger, 2018), an affiliate of the national student-based iMatter campaign (iMatter-St. Louis Park, Minnesota, 2018). The club is credited with the Saint Louis Park City Council’s February 2018 adoption of a climate action plan that has the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. The City Council action was based, in part, on a climate change report card issued by the student club two years earlier.

Many of the students who worked on the climate change report card are now well into their undergraduate studies. Their hands-on research on sustainability issues, articulation of steps to take to mitigate problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, and creation of strategies to address renewable energy and waste management options for the city provided them with real-time experience in contributing solutions to the complex grand challenges facing society. Will their higher education degree programs prepare them for a future as active citizens or researchers? Will their graduate programs narrow their focus to a single discipline or provide the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary foundations needed to confront the interrelated environmental, social, and economic issues of sustainability represented by Isle de Jean Charles?

Sustainability and Students

A generation has passed since the concept of sustainability debuted in the 1987 United Nations report, “Our Common Future” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Sustainability science, more recently defined as “use-inspired research” that promotes goals of sustainability (Matson, Clark, & Anderson, 2016), is in the early stages of evolving as a new field of science. Sustainability science was first described in a 1999 report of the National Research Council and was further advanced in a 2001 article in Science (Kates et al., 2001). Early descriptions focused on ways that sustainability science can help to ensure the health of the planet and its future generations. At that time, reports did not explicitly address preparing future generations of problem solvers and leaders – students. Nearly 30 years prior to the 2001 Science article, Griffith and Mullins (1972) emphasized the importance of specifically engaging graduate students in research and training opportunities so they can take part in emerging fields and teach the next generation. Griffith and Mullins (1972) summarized, “The importance of these activities is clear: Groups without students die” (p. 962). Today, the emphasis applies to the emerging field of sustainability science.

To fully appreciate the influence that students wield today, it is important to consider interrelated elements that contribute to their position as agents of change. This chapter focuses on the emergence of the sustainability science field, the structure of higher education institutions, the role of faculty members, and the direct influence that students have on faculty members who engage in sustainability and sustainability science-related work. The chapter concludes with examples of efforts being made by higher education organizations, sustainability networks, and institutions to create sustainability and transdisciplinary learning experiences that best position students in their careers, and as future leaders, in sustainability.

The Field of Sustainability Science

One activity that helps advance sustainability science is transdisciplinary research analyses. Transdisciplinary research is a new, but growing field, that is essential to sustainability science but, as of yet, has no common terminology or shared research framework (Brandt et al., 2013). Descriptions of integrated, cross-disciplinary processes generally rest on two terms: interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Vincent and Focht (2011) described interdisciplinary processes as those pursued by scientific and technological experts to better understand complex environmental systems and phenomena. Their definition of transdisciplinary processes expands to include environmental practitioners, policymakers, economic sector representatives, and public stakeholders who participate in the policies and governance that guide the management of complex human-nature systems. Transdisciplinary work – integrating scholarly research expertise with other ways of knowing – is foundational to sustainability science and the type of experiential learning that students are demanding.

Developments that are associated with sustainability science – evolving communications and research networks, conferences, and new journals – are consistent with what has been called “the invisible college” (Crane, 1969) and the emergence of new scientific fields (Griffith & Mullins, 1972). Social mechanisms that result in a response to scientific problems and advocacy around an issue can develop among groups of researchers (Griffith & Mullins, 1972) – in this case, sustainability. In some cases, scientists that coalesce around a scientific issue might have effects on their respective, traditional disciplines. Based on an analysis of the literature on sustainability, Bettencourt and Kaur (2011) found that the sustainability science research network has a broad geographical footprint that includes both developed and developing countries. The network also includes small universities, as well as well-recognized national centers, from around the world and a disciplinary array that includes the social sciences, biophysical sciences, health sciences, engineering, law, public policy, and increasingly, the arts and humanities.

As described later, from the perspective of faculty members, graduate students increasingly come to the classroom and the laboratory with an understanding of the complexities of the vexing, big problems of today. They are eager to work with others from a variety of disciplines and with external community partners to drive toward solutions that require diverse ways of knowing and expertise from multiple disciplines. Students are motivators. They press faculty to include interdisciplinary components in courses and question requirements in degree programs that do not better position them for interdisciplinary expertise – possibly making them the most effective change agents within academia today.

Institutions of Higher Education

Since the inception of sustainability science in 2001 (Wiek, Withycombe, & Redman, 2011) and the subsequent literature contributions, scholars have been exploring implications for higher education’s role in sustainability. Scholars have also been emphasizing ways to balance social and natural science research approaches and to integrate citizens’ local knowledge.

Higher education is well-positioned to serve as the change agent for sustainability (Stephens, Hernandez, Román, Graham, & Scholz, 2008), particularly with the emergence of sustainability science. Stephens, Hernandez, Román, Graham, & Scholz (2008) suggest that the new science of sustainability could indeed spur change and subsequently transition society, via a new, integrated approach, to address the complex and long-term challenges of sustainability. Academic researchers recognize the structural impediments within higher education institutions that can inhibit progress in addressing sustainability and that the inception of sustainability science signals interest, on the part of researchers, to break down institutional barriers.

A key challenge to integrating sustainability research and community engagement into colleges and universities is inherent in the organization and leadership structures of higher education institutions. Cortese (2003) concluded that the vertical rigor of the disciplinary focus (commonly referred to as a “silo”) in higher education encourages compartmentalized and competitive views that are contrary to the interdependent nature of sustainability. He suggested a structure and culture where an equally strong lateral rigor draws students and faculty across disciplines together, encourages systems thinking, incorporates sustainable operations and facility design, and engages communities. Using the University of Michigan as a case study, Shriberg (2003) addressed the consequences of a lack of sustainability leadership at the highest levels of an institution. Shriberg (2003) argued that activities across an institution are piecemeal greening efforts and concluded that, without leaders at the top who identify sustainability as a priority, there is no driving force to coalesce the many scattered pockets of sustainability activities and disciplinary knowledge into a cohesive whole. Velazquez, Munguia, and Sanchez (2005) also reported that decentralized management, bureaucracy, student and faculty turnover, and many non-standardized processes are also barriers to achieving institutional sustainability goals. Other scholars have concluded that there are few examples of strong institutional leaders who make an active commitment to achieving their institution’s sustainability goals and an alternative leadership model is required (Thompson & Green, 2005). They argued that, within an institution, proponents of sustainability must develop strategies that do not assume a top-down approach (Thompson & Green, 2005).

The Role of Faculty

Some scholars emphasize the importance of faculty members when it comes to motivating people to make changes related to sustainability within their institutions. Pittman (2004) argued that, within institutions of higher education, top-down approaches to strategic initiatives and transformational change are largely ineffective. He noted that institutions are slow to change their use of mechanistic “command and control” (Pittman, 2004, p. 202) strategies to manage their scientific endeavors. Pittman described the importance of the relationship between the individual faculty member and the institution through the lens of whole systems design. Whole systems design is a design-based strategy for organizational change that begins with individuals – faculty, students, and partners outside of the university – who work together toward a shared and collective vision to address complex problems such as sustainability. Pittman (2004) emphasized that it is individuals within an institution who will make change.

Student Influences on Faculty Members

The observations of faculty members are a testament to the change-making leadership that students are demonstrating in classrooms, labs, and community partnership projects. During dissertation research data collection (Carlson, 2017), 20 faculty members at the University of Minnesota were interviewed about the ways factors related to sustainability science influence their work. Seven factors consistent with the emergence of new fields of science were analyzed: new journals; associations, organizations, and networks; funders’ priorities; colleagues from other disciplines; stakeholder and citizen interests; international arrangements; and student interests. Student interests, more specifically those of graduate students, was one of three factors that had a very strong influence on faculty – all respondents indicated the ways that students positively influence their research, teaching, and community engagement (the other two factors that strongly influenced faculty were colleagues from other disciplines and stakeholder and citizen interests). The faculty interviewees were affiliated with a University-wide interdisciplinary center and represented 16 disciplines. They had all conducted sustainability research to varying degrees.

Today, students exhibit a level of global awareness, including both scientific and social awareness, of complex issues beyond that of students a decade ago, according to the faculty interviewees referenced below (Carlson, 2017). The savviness that students have for employing sustainability science methods to address societal grand challenges affects professors’ research and how they incorporate sustainability issues into the curriculum. Scholars described the strong influence of their students with enthusiasm and pride. One professor compared the students’ growing interest in the interaction of humans and nature with the emergence of sustainability science:

[The influence of students] is constant in the sense that they’ll come in and ask really good questions. They oftentimes bring in new and fresh perspectives. I get exposed to students who are really interested in issues about where we are headed – what’s happening in the environment and what’s happening to the environment and society.

Students appear to be pushing for a cultural change that is recognized by faculty members. Some professors are meeting the interests of students through research opportunities and class curriculum. A biologist described the change in student interests over time as aligning with sustainability science and the concomitant influences of sustainability science on research projects:

Students have changed tremendously in my career. When I was a graduate student and then shortly after that became a faculty member, we paid almost no attention to whether our work was relevant to sustainability of the planet. In fact, quite the contrary, there was an attitude when I started my career – quite a pervasive attitude – that basically looked down on any projects that had social relevance. The thinking was, if you’re doing something socially relevant, it’s because you aren’t good enough to come up with an idea that’s saleable otherwise. And today, the pendulum has swung so far that almost every project, almost every student who comes to me, starts with an idea of, even in general terms, ‘We’re increasing carbon dioxide, and the climate’s changing, and therefore we have to know X, Y, or Z.’ I would have to think very long to remember the last student who expressed an interest to me that was disassociated with social forces and sustainability science broadly defined. Every student says they want to work on biology or ecology or limnology today because they care about people of the planet. There has been a tremendous cultural shift.

Students influence their professors by utilizing the mentor, adviser, or teacher relationship to introduce them to related areas of research. An engineer described a new area of investigation and the learning that the scientist experienced through advising a student:

I’ve had a few [students] come in from the get-go with a really strong idea of what they wanted to work on, and that’s been really fun because over time you can see how it connects to your other work, too. And I had one [student] who was really interested in stormwater treatment and rain gardens, which is not something that I’ve thought of myself as doing. I co-advised this [student], and he was so smart, and it was a really nice three-way partnership. I learned just a ton from him, and I think about stormwater now, where I never would have bothered to think about it before…When I first started [teaching], the students seemed not very engaged in the political world and social enterprises. They seemed pretty focused on themselves and their other activities. Now, I see a change; the students are really engaged and want to save the world. They’re much more politically aware – and not just necessarily Washington politics – but in general, the movements going on, Black Lives Matter, and various equity and social justice things going on. I think they’re much more aware of developing world issues.

The genuine receptivity to student ideas and research findings that many respondents described was articulated by a public health researcher:

Students bring new ideas that are not my area of expertise but are around my area of interest or my area of application. I have an excellent Ph.D. student who actually proposed to me a new method. I was very skeptical at the beginning, but we evaluated that method with other previous methods that we used, and her method is much more efficient. So, I love when these things happen because they open my mind.

An entomologist described an instance where a student researcher had a major impact on an aspect of the respondent’s ongoing research:

…Sometimes [students] find out things that I never would have thought. I have an example of that with a student doing what he was supposed to be doing, but then he found something really different that really changed everything. So that can happen. [The student’s finding] made us think differently about the [work]. That was a case of a student just doing a regular experiment and finding out something that really sort of blew our minds.

Students may be a factor in deepening interdisciplinary interactions through their work with scientists and other students in multiple disciplines. A big-data researcher reflected on the influences of students from various disciplines, using an example that included post-doctoral researchers:

I have seen that a few of my students, while they were working with a postdoc coming from the science domain of ecology and climate science, get locked into the problem, and then they start teaching me. One of my students is studying how plants adjust their various properties in different biomes, and she knows more about this than I do. And she educates me. She understands what I know and understand, and she’ll bring it down to my level and explain to me what we are trying to do. I learn more from the [students] than I would get from [reading] a Nature or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences science paper…And the post-docs in other disciplines teach me a lot, a lot. I do serve on the committees of various students, somebody working on leaf venation structures – how leaf veins work. Somebody working on plant species that are going extinct…they often need a sounding board on the mathematical and computing ideas. I think this is a fantastic use of my time…This stimulates your brain; this person unfolds this whole new world. I find that fascinating. And, in some ways, I believe I can help them.

Students were strong motivators for the professors who were interviewed. The give and take between a student’s interests and the expertise of a scientist can result in changes in the way a scientist approaches a research question and encourages a student to pursue a research direction. A chemistry professor addressed students’ passion for working on the wicked problems facing society and the challenges of addressing their curiosity and creativity:

Graduate students who come into our program are very keen on, to be a little bit flip, saving the world. They want to work on sustainability initiatives whether or not it’s in energy or water or food or green chemistry. That transition is evident since the last decade or 20 years since I’ve been here. The student population is changing so much. They really are passionate about solving these practical problems, so they push me in that direction. It’s really kind of synergistic. I pitch it, but they’re already committed to it, and so they give me more motivation to continue along those lines. If the students are coming in with a particular interest in a framework of sustainability, how can I work my science and research projects to connect to the students? Can I emphasize and grow the sustainability aspect on the basis that this is what the students want to work on? I like the latitude of letting the students take the projects in the directions they think are most important.

The Academic Organization

Student interests strongly motivate faculty behavior. The desire of both students and faculty to apply sustainability science methods – interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, among others – will likely drive change within academic institution structures. Institutions, in general, strive to meet student needs in the classroom and through graduate education experiences but lag in providing the high-value interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary opportunities that students desire. Interviewees expressed their goals for addressing student interests and also described opportunities and challenges for graduate education.

A professor described the pervasiveness of sustainability and student interest as the impetus to incorporate sustainability approaches in the classroom:

I think that students are definitely interested in sustainability. Most students who come to the field of urban planning know what it is, know how to use the term, and refer to things that they’re doing as sustainable or not, and have some basic understanding. They’re often motivated in saying, ‘You know, I really want to do sustainability planning. What opportunities for me are there in sustainability?’ What I try to do in the class that focuses on it most totally is to think about tools and ways that sustainability is implemented – take a set of ideas and a set of aspirations and some sort of ideal concept that we can get to, which is sustainability, to think about, for planners or for people in public policy, what are the tools that they have to get to [do sustainability]?

New approaches to graduate student training and interdisciplinary work could be developed using a sustainability science lens. A scientist commented on the benefits of education from both a disciplinary and interdisciplinary frame:

I’ve had a few students, and I could see having a growing proportion of students, who are doing work that is essentially informed by sustainability science. I had one student who did a mix of applied economics and ecological modeling to create the scenarios of land use, and that work is increasingly being subsumed under sustainability science…If you could get the graduate students inured to an interdisciplinary sustainability focus, then they will carry that forward. The [graduate students] would be trained in that way – have a home discipline in which they are experts, but get used to playing with other folk.

Within the current configuration of higher education institutions, students pursuing sustainability science or other aspects of interdisciplinary work will likely find barriers. An interviewee focusing on geographical information systems-based research expressed concern for students who seek interdisciplinary expertise in educational systems constrained by the disciplines. The interviewee posited that a strong disciplinary focus might better position students for the future, given the current structure and reward system of academia.

When you have a graduate program like conservation biology or sustainability studies, I worry that [the students are] going to be undercut when they go on the job market. Say you want to get hired into a sociology department; most sociology departments would rather hire a straight up sociologist than someone who did a sustainability science degree with a sociology focus, which kind of speaks to the tyranny of the discipline.

The majority of faculty members in academia conduct disciplinary research, following the traditional structures of higher education institutions. However, as young academics with sustainability science or interdisciplinary expertise move through the tenure process, the mix of disciplinary and interdisciplinary focus might change over time. An ecologist described enthusiasm for working with students compared to working with peers:

The students haven’t been beaten down by disciplinary pressures for decades, so it’s much easier to do interdisciplinary work with them than it is to do it with senior faculty. And [the students] also bring lots of energy.

Student interest in sustainability can better inform the public as graduates with sustainability science and interdisciplinary expertise move into the workforce. This expertise can benefit young learners in kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms, as well as the general public. A professor with interest in science education said:

[University students] tend to come in [now] having had a few more, I would say very loosely, interdisciplinary experiences or different experiences in learning. They’re more likely to have seen examples of how to use sustainability as a way to teach their disciplines. Sustainability has been a way for me to bridge that [interest in science by students who do not intend to become scientists]. For me, it’s really: How do you get the public in any way, sense, or form, to care about scientific issues? Sustainability just becomes one of those drivers [of interest in scientific issues].

The interviewees addressed, in a variety of ways, the burden of the disciplines in the promotion and tenure policy, departmental expectations, and the standard advice to young, non-tenured faculty members and students not to stray from the narrow, disciplinary focus. They expressed concern for their students who are passionate about working on interdisciplinary grand challenges, noting, in particular, academic academic employers’ expectations for an intellectual base in a discipline.

Results from the analysis of the faculty interview data emphasized the importance of individuals – faculty members and students – as change agents within higher education institutions. Change agents are necessary for the expansion of sustainability science-based approaches to research, teaching, and community engagement. The dedication of the faculty to pursue solutions to complex sustainability problems, coupled with the students demanding transdisciplinary experiences through sustainability science, might be increasingly strong drivers for institutional change.

Encouraging Institutional Change

Advancing higher education organization networks is one strategy that can be used to encourage institutional change that results in increased opportunities for graduate students in sustainability science and interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship.

Higher Education Organizations

Three key higher education organizations that specifically include a focus on graduate students are the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Although the focus on graduate student opportunities in sustainability and interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship could be more straightforward, each of the three organizations highlights preparing students to address societal grand challenges to varying degrees.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (2018a) has 400 public college and university member institutions in the United States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Student attendance at these institutions ranges from 1,000 to 44,000 students. The organization’s sustainability and sustainable development programs include emphases on education and the establishment of minors in sustainability (2018b).

The Association of American Universities (2018a), with 62 research university members, has launched a doctoral education initiative that includes a goal to “influence the culture and behavior at the department level to provide Ph.D. students with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful in careers both within and beyond academia” (2018b). Neither sustainability science nor interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary scholarship, however, are specifically addressed.

The Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities represents 238 members in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, Canada, and Mexico (2018a). It has undertaken two initiatives that have the potential to advance opportunities for graduate students wishing to enhance their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning experiences to pursue careers in sustainability. The “Challenge of Change” initiative focuses on sustainable solutions to feeding the world, specifically noting the role academic institutions have in training future generations of leaders who will continue to address the health of people and of the environment (2018b). The Highly Integrative Basic and Responsive (HIBAR) Research initiative is a network of research leaders grounded in collaborative work engaging academic institutions, corporations, and governmental agencies. The Association states that “HIBAR research builds upon other conceptions of engaged science and technology, such as research on societal grand challenges” (2018c). The Association lists 21 criteria for evaluating HIBAR research. Criterion 17 is: “Are there opportunities to involve and mentor students?” (2018d). This criterion suggests that there is some level of attention being paid to enhancing opportunities that emphasize the value of external partners for students who wish to gain experiences in collaborative research.

In addition, in October 2017, the University of California-Los Angeles convened representatives from more than 20 universities and other institutions to discuss the creation of a community of practice for university-led grand challenges initiatives. University-Led Grand Challenges (Popowitz & Dorgelo, 2018), the report from the workshop, highlights the efforts of 18 universities that are leading grand challenges programs that engage students, faculty, and external partners to solve major societal issues. The institutions are pursuing varying approaches to research, teaching, and public engagement to advance solutions-driven science. The report addresses the need to position students to be future leaders in addressing grand challenges. Among these institutions, the University of Minnesota is somewhat unique, since the five grand challenges that the institution continues to address were developed through a campus community engagement model that involved faculty, students, and staff members. Competitively funded interdisciplinary teams include graduate and undergraduate students as well as external partners (University of Minnesota, 2018).

Sustainability-Focused Organizations

Organizations that focus on action agendas related to sustainability and sustainable development are also increasingly viewing the preparation of future leaders in sustainability as a priority. A number of colleges and universities have indicated their commitment to sustainability through membership in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (2018a). The association offers action steps and documentation that institutions can use to shape a sustainability strategy. It also offers self-reported information on sustainability courses, certificate programs, concentrations, and sustainability-related minors (2018b). The data are informative but are not described in a way that allows for easy comparisons across institutions or opportunities for graduate students.

Even before the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development concluded in 2014 (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2018), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2018a) was launched in 2012 to support the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Universities represent 500 of the more than 800 network members (Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2018b) that are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals objectives of ending poverty and hunger, ensuring access to education and healthcare, and protecting the environment worldwide (United Nations Development Programme, 2018). In addition, the University Partnership Program of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2018c) assists universities and other educational institutions in incorporating sustainability materials into course development and delivery.

The definition of sustainable development from the classic Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) emphasized a long-term perspective: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (chapter 2, point 1). An essential component of this long-term view is the education and training of sustainability scientists and practitioners who are skilled in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to the big, intractable problems facing societies globally. Organizations and networks are indeed collaborating to support the integration of sustainability into the curriculum and degree programs at academic institutions. However, to what extent is the education of graduate students as future leaders in sustainability a priority for individual institutions of higher education?

Advances in Higher Education Institutions

In general, the concept of sustainability has gained traction in recent years, supported by increasing institutional momentum. European institutions have led the way (Gardner, 2011), but both Arizona State University and Harvard University, among others, are cited as prominent examples of institutional accomplishment and leadership in the field of sustainability (Rowe, 2007; Wiek, Withycombe, & Redman, 2011).

Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow describes the reconceptualization of his institution based on commitments to academic excellence, inclusiveness, maximum societal impact, and quality operations and organization – with sustainability at the core (Arizona State University, 2018a; Crow, 2010). Transdisciplinary schools within the university have been created and some traditional academic departments have been eliminated including biology, sociology, anthropology, and geology. In envisioning the “New American University,” Crow (Arizona State University, 2018b) urges that “scientific research conducted with application and social context in mind – outcome-driven science, or science with purpose – should be granted equal accord with fundamental research” (Crow, 2010, p. 488). Since the inception of the School of Sustainability in 2007, one of the outcomes has been that the current portfolio of graduate sustainability degree programs includes masters and Ph.D. degree programs (Arizona State University, 2018c).

George Washington University offers another strategy for sustainability education that takes a step beyond interdisciplinary scholarship. The Academic Program in Sustainability resides in the Office of the Provost at George Washington University, consistent with a pan-university vision for courses open to all students and faculty (Benton-Short & Merrigan, 2016). The George Washington Faculty Committee on Sustainability considered four approaches for structuring sustainability education: a unique sustainability degree, the creation of a degree-granting sustainability institute or center, the establishment of a school of sustainability, and organizing existing sustainability-related degree programs into a matrix. The matrix approach has been pursued with some success. However, Benton-Short and Merrigan (2016) noted the ongoing challenges for organizational structures that create barriers for many higher education institutions intent on advancing sustainability and interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary opportunities in research and education. Traditional barriers continue to be disciplinary silos, promotion and tenure processes, and governance issues, among others.

Arizona State University and George Washington University are just two examples of institutions that are innovating to ensure that graduate student education best positions students for their careers, whether in academia or in public or private sectors. It is important to emphasize the tendencies of institutions toward isomorphism, the process that causes, in this case, a higher education institution to become more like other colleges and universities (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Isomorphism can potentially contribute to a more coordinated approach to graduate education and training — and to sustainability solutions – across an increasing number of higher education institutions.

Making Change

Students will continue to be drivers of change within institutions of higher education. Through sustainability science and transdisciplinary approaches, the faculty and students within their institutions can reach beyond the campus to work with stakeholders and citizens’ organizations to confront sustainability challenges together. Colleges and universities need to continue to assess how best to tailor scholarship and experiential learning opportunities – whether designated as grand challenges or interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or sustainability scholarship – to best prepare the sustainability leaders of the future.


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