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Towards deep sustainability at the university: Reflections from our new intern

cCHANGEā€™s new intern Jelle Buijs shares his insights on how transformational leadership approaches could deepen sustainability in universities.Read More

My name is Jelle Buijs. I study International Environmental Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and am excited to announce that I am the new intern at cCHANGE!

I am incredibly grateful that I have been able to attend cCHANGEā€™s Transformational Leadership for Sustainability (TLFS) program last year thanks to the generous support from NMBU. I learned that taking my values as a starting point in everything I do transforms how I give meaning to my personal and professional life as well as how I relate to myself and to others.

Transforming education

Through the TLFS program, I learnt transformative tools to bring about the changes I would like to see. I also learned a new vocabulary, which enables me to articulate the shifts I see are needed to generate transformative change. I have come to see how the ā€œunsustainableā€ manifests in the everyday and how shifts towards sustainability need to happen within that space.

In the past, I have focused a lot on the practical dimensions of change, while being less aware of its overarching political and personal dimensions. Now, after the TLFS program, I relate everything I do to the bigger picture; connecting my micro practices to the impact and measurable results I wish to see. This means that I deliberately chose not to invest my time and energy in quick fixes, because they are simply not addressing the underlying problems of our multiple and converging societal crises.

By using the tools and concepts of the TLFS program, I have reflected on how the ā€œunsustainableā€ manifests in many universities, such as amazing research having little impact in society or increasing stress and anxiety among students and staff. I have contemplated how we could transcend the inertia. I have reflected upon what problems I think we could be solving, what shifts I think are needed to make this happen, and the inner capacities we can tap into to realize the full potential of universities. Below, I share my vision of how university education could transform:

Values

I believe that transforming education should be about deepening authenticity, democracy, and sustainability.

Becoming more authentic requires us to do things differently. It is not about following the Ivy League trajectory. It is not about setting up new courses to study sustainability as something ā€˜out thereā€™ that can be objectively studied in the classroom. It truly is about going about things differently in our own authentic way, such as given meaning to sustainability based on the particular context of the university.

Becoming more democratic will require us to open up for multiple forms of knowledge and to take co-learning seriously, to foster decentralized trust-based leadership, such as getting rid of hour sheets and trusting staff to manage their time.

Becoming more sustainable requires a new way of being, acting, and learning. The ā€œunsustainableā€ should not just be reduced to environmental problems, but rather we should take seriously the social and human dimensions of sustainability. Sustainability then touches upon a wider range of issues, such as inclusiveness and equity, quality of life, flourishing, being in integrity, and a sense of belonging. Becoming more sustainable requires us to embody it – to practice sustainability with our minds, hearts, and hands in our everyday lives.

Systems and structures

Deepening these three values will require several shifts in the systems and structures that characterize many universities. These structural barriers are largely a result of the marketization of university education. We could shift from the university as a site of production to the university as a transformative space for reflection and dialogue. We could shift from a culture of competition to a culture of cooperation.

Many students and staff are working very hard to transform our universities in this direction and are unfortunately continuously faced with structural constraints that hinder them from realizing their full transformative potential. We could therefore shift from a constraining to an enabling environment. We could furthermore shift from sustainability as a technical fix to deepening and integrating sustainability in all aspects of our community and daily practice.

Strategic actions

I believe that the ā€œunsustainableā€ systems and structures I identified above can shift through three strategic actions.

Firstly, taking sustainability seriously means acknowledging that the days of evaluating staff primarily based on the quantity of published articles and obtained project budgets should belong to the past. We could transform the reward system for staff in a way that fully appreciates the qualitative and softer values in our community such as authentic contributions to deep learning in the classroom, engaging in the universityā€™s democracy, demystification of science for the general public, and shifting societal discourses.

Secondly, we should democratize decision-making through decentralization. Too many top-down management decisions kill creativity and meaningful engagement. More decisions should be transferred from the top to lower levels of the university. This transferal should be based on trust.

And finally, we could make deep sustainability an evaluative criterion for decision-making at all levels. We could make it a habit to ask ourselves how the actions we plan to carry out impact sustainability in the deep sense of the word.

From tweaking to transforming

I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to be introduced to a fundamentally new approach. I have learned how to do things differently by connecting my mind, heart, and hands. Doing things differently is much more difficult than it sounds, but nevertheless possible. I feel better equipped to tap into my own potential and feel empowered and enriched.

I do hope that more people will participate in the TLFS program, because I believe that the program provides the time and space to reflect individually and collectively on how to best generate the big leaps forward that we need to see now.

Read more about cCHANGEā€™s Transformational Leadership for Sustainability Program starting in September 2022: https://transformational-leadership.no/

Image: Jelle Buijs, Intern at cCHANGE (by Heidi Arctander)

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