University leaders worldwide sign sustainability declaration

Academic leaders and institutions around the world have been called on by United Nations agencies to commit to developing sustainable practices in higher education and to help build more sustainable societies, by signing a declaration ahead of the global Rio+20 conference.

The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative for Rio+20 – the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, being held in Rio de Janeiro from 20-22 June – says the sector has a “special responsibility to provide leadership on education for sustainable development”.

As institutions that educate decision-makers, higher education institutions play a key role in “building more sustainable societies and creating new paradigms”, according to the initiative.

“As educational institutions, they have the mission to promote development through both research and teaching, disseminating new knowledge and insights to their students and building their capabilities.”

The initiative is supported by the UN Academic Impact, UNESCO, the UN Environmental Programme, the Global Compact, PRME – Principles for Responsible Management Education – and the United Nations University.

So far some 129 universities and 29 networks, associations and student organisations in 43 countries have signed the declaration and the list is growing.

The document acknowledges the responsibilities of higher education leaders in “the international pursuit of sustainable development”. It commits institutions to:
  • • Teach sustainable development concepts, “ensuring they form part of the core curriculum across all disciplines”.
  • • Encourage research on sustainable development, to improve understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge.
  • • ‘Green’ campuses by reducing their environmental footprint, adopting sustainable procurement practices, sustainable mobility options and effective programmes for waste minimisation, recycling and reuse, and encouraging more sustainable lifestyles.
  • • Support sustainability efforts in local communities, in collaboration with local authorities and civil society.
  • • Engage with and share results through international frameworks – such as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the UN University and the UN Academic Impact – in order to exchange knowledge and experiences and to report on progress and challenges.
Mitch Leventhal, vice-chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY), told University World News: “As the largest comprehensive university system in the world, with 64 diverse campuses and nearly a half million students, the SUNY system, by signing this declaration, is committing its time, talent and resources to the sustainable development objectives outlined in the document.”

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at the National Research Centre in Egypt, told University World News that the declaration could be considered a guide for institutions “to incorporate sustainable development values, knowledge, skills, approaches and practices into teaching, research, institutional management and operational systems".

This would help institutions to produce environmentally responsible and scientifically informed workforces capable of building green economies and societies, said Abdelhamid, who suggested that signatories to the declaration should also join forces with the International Sustainable Campus Network to exchange information, ideas and best practices.

“The declaration provides signatories an opportunity to raise profile and announce steadfast commitment to promoting sustainable development on local to global scales,” said Dann Sklarew, associate professor of environmental science and policy and fellow of sustainability studies at the US-based George Mason University, or GMU.

“Situated in one of the most affluent regions on earth – a community including mostly ‘winners’ under the existing development paradigm – GMU is challenged on the ground to convey the relevance and urgency of transitioning to a more sustainable development approach.

“In a scientifically and socially defensible manner, we need to instill that acting proactively to help pursue sustainable development at all scales, benefits the enlightened self-interest of those who continue to benefit from the status quo,” Sklarew added.

He hoped that participation in the declaration, following the university’s involvement in American higher education sustainability initiatives, would enable it to “expand from campus-to-community scales to national and international scales of promoting sustainable development”.

Asked about ways to implement the declaration on the ground, Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford in the UK, told University World News: “If sustainable development is to be achieved, we have to establish practical ways of translating broad principles and international declarations into good practice at the local and institutional level. This is why the declaration is important for us.

“We welcome students to Salford from more than 100 countries, as well as from the north-west region of Britain. Combined with our traditional strengths in a range of research fields, this makes us a hotbed for innovation, with lots of potential for progress in the future.

“This will be manifested in a range of practical applications, such as sustainable housing solutions, retrofit of existing buildings, environmental management for sustainable futures and sustainable practices in the oil and gas industries,” Hall concluded.

Francis Idike, vice-chancellor of Ebonyi State University in Nigeria, said charity began at home and the declaration would help higher education institutions to provide examples of sustainable development practices through practical actions taken on their campuses.

Carlo Carraro, president of Università Ca' Foscari Venezia in Italy, said the declaration contributed towards disseminating sustainable values among universities and individuals. Over the years, universities had identified opportunities to become protagonists of social change and to lead communities towards a more sustainable world.

Given their role and activities in education and research, Carraro told University World News, universities are able to change behaviors through educating for sustainability, which was a major driver of change. “Universities can develop the necessary competencies, knowledge and perspectives to inform the decisions that improve quality of life at all levels."

Also, Carraro said, sustainable universities were an example to stakeholders, “assuming a catalyst role of good sustainable practices through the adoption of behaviors that may be the demonstration of contagious change through the whole of society”.