Creating tomorrow’s climate change leaders on campus

What is the role of higher education in promoting values among future leaders and good governance?

In 1978, Pulitzer award-winning author, historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns founded the field of leadership studies and introduced the concept of transformational leadership.

Burns believed that transformational leadership could foster higher-level moral reasoning, demonstrate greater integrity, encourage the development of positive ethical frameworks, institutionalise ethical practices and promote social responsibility.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Universities, unique in their societal role, have the opportunity to employ transformational leadership to promote higher level altruistic goals and self-actualisation. This approach is necessary to tackle the most pressing issue of our generation: climate change.

Climate change poses a global catastrophic risk. This means it could damage human well-being on a global scale, crippling human civilisation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in late 2018, stated that if global emissions are not decreased by half before 2030, we will not be able to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

This is an enormous task, requiring the collective and focused efforts of stakeholders across the globe. There is an important role for universities to form and leverage new collaborations in order to develop solutions and track progress. Universities must also play a pivotal role in inspiring and motivating the next generation of change-makers by fomenting a lifelong commitment to sustainability.

Inspirational motivation

One of the central tenets of transformational leadership is inspirational motivation. This speaks to the idea of motivating through optimism, building team morale and developing a strong vision for the future.

While impactful, implementing this approach at universities can be challenging due to the scale of institutions. Even more challenging is implementing this approach at the scale required to combat the global issue of climate change.

The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), a non-profit association of universities in over 30 countries, presents a potential solution to this challenge.

Founded in 2007, the mission of the organisation is to provide an international forum to support higher education institutions in the exchange of information, ideas and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability into research and teaching.

Towards a more sustainable future

In 2009, ISCN, in partnership with the Global University Leaders Forum or GULF (a group of the World Economic Forum) developed the ISCN-GULF Sustainable Campus Charter.

This charter acknowledged that organisations of research and higher education have a unique role to play in developing the technologies, strategies, citizens and leaders required for a more sustainable future. It was ratified at the 2010 GULF meeting at the World Economic Forum.

The sustainability landscape has changed dramatically since 2009 with global events such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the release of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In light of these developments, in 2018 the ISCN developed an updated version of the Sustainable Campus Charter, which was released in February 2019. The new charter provides a framework to mobilise international, cross-sector action to cultivate the partnerships, strategies, policies and leaders required for a more sustainable future.

Victoria Smith, ISCN’s executive director, explains the process: “Over the past year, we worked collectively as a network and broadly engaged membership in the development of the charter. We received feedback through surveys and in-person sessions from member institutions in over 27 countries.

“The 2018 charter outlines a common vision, that ISCN members will use their shared capacity, passion and intellectual capital to re-envision the future and take meaningful action to contribute to sustainable development.”

Notably, the updated Sustainable Campus Charter identified two calls to action where universities can lead by example on issues of sustainable development.

The first is focused on the importance of institutional leadership. This call to action asks signatories to: i) embed sustainability in all aspects of the university (governance, operations, learning, research and community); ii) create an environment that cultivates resilient, empowered, caring and engaged students, staff and faculty who will contribute to the health of people and places; and iii) engage with external partners, industry, government and civil society to disseminate knowledge, research and best practices to benefit the communities in which they serve.

The second call to action focuses on the importance of network collaboration, specifically, to deepen and broaden the collaboration that happens between members of the network in order to accelerate collective action; and to ensure that the network is significantly inspiring international dialogue and debate that contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals.

From mentoring to peer exchange

To help signatories put these calls to action into effect, the ISCN is working to develop a number of capacity building pilot programmes that will be introduced in 2019.

The first programme is the Ambassadors Mentoring Programme, which pairs ISCN members with mentee universities that are just starting on the sustainability pathway. This programme enables mentors and mentees to work together to complete a sustainability assessment to establish a baseline and then work collaboratively to develop a roadmap towards sustainability commitments.

The second programme is the Peer Exchange Programme. Through this programme, ISCN members will have the opportunity to host a representative from another member institution to take part in a robust peer exchange with faculty, staff and students.

The third programme is the Peer Review Programme. This programme will facilitate a process where other ISCN members will review emerging plans and programmes with the aim of both improving the final product delivered and adding further credibility to the development of the document.

The final programme is the City-University Partnership Programme. This programme aims to convene a cohort of members and city partners to develop a strategic framework for enhancing collaboration between cities and universities.

Through these pilot programmes, the ISCN aims to put its transformational aspirations into action.

Shannon Lambie is a masters student in community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She works part-time as an engagement specialist with the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN). To learn more about the ISCN and read the Sustainable Campus Charter, click here.