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A sustainable university – new demands in the light of Agenda 2030

Lund University’s Strategic Plan states that we must take a major social responsibility and meet the global challenges. The goals in Agenda 2030 also place new demands on research, education and collaboration, which will require brave and transformative action from the University. This highlights a need for an open and inclusive discussion on how to set these changes in motion: How can we both improve our own capacity as a major university and support students in becoming drivers for positive social change? What obstacles stand in our way and how do we overcome them?
A university for sustainable development?
Lund: A university for sustainable development? From the left: Mathieu Mal, representative of Hållbart Universitet (HU), Alexander Nymark (Vice president of LUS), Susanne Arvidsson (Ass. prof.), Sylvia Schwaag-Serger (Deputy Vice-Chancellor)

On the 13th of November 2018, students, researchers and university leadership met to discuss how Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals relate to Lund University. The seminar is part of the ongoing work done by Lund University Sustainability Forum, bridging divides within the university to facilitate discussions and action for sustainability. The room was filled to the brink with an engaged audience, eager to contribute to a more sustainable university. As the deputy vice-chancellor, Sylvia Schwaag Serger, pointed out in the beginning of the seminar, transformation for sustainability does not mean business as usual.

– I think that here in Sweden we often neglect that driving change also involves conflicts. There are always people winning and losing. I believe universities are one of the most important institutions to drive this change – both through our education and research, said Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

She also highlighted that Agenda 2030, which the international community agreed on in 2015, is not a road map.

– It is a vision on how we can combine the three dimensions of sustainability. I think it is important to realize that it is not all about new technologies, but also about understanding people and implementing policies, said Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

Sylvia Schwaag-Serger, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Lund University.
Sylvia Schwaag-Serger, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Lund University.

Susanne Arvidsson, Associate Professor at Lund University School of Economics and Management, agreed with Sylvia that universities must become better at understanding how we can drive change, and escape the ivory tower of academia to engage in meaningful exchange with the rest of society.

– Stakeholder involvement is so important. We need to admit our failures and find solutions together. Here, I see you students as change agents. Companies and organizations outside the university expect you to have the ‘tool box’ and the competence for this. I think we must be humble and admit that we have not always equipped you with this tool box. Engaging with the society is important in this challenge, not the least to give us ideas on what to fill in the students’ ‘tool box’, said Susanne Arvidsson.

As an example of a way to work with collaborative activities involving students, researcher and companies, Susanne Arvidsson told the audience about a project that she and the student organization LINC, Lund University Finance Society, have worked with this year. This is the Swedish Corporate Sustainability Ranking.

– The aim is that this ranking will push companies one step forward both when it comes to transform their organisations into more sustainable and when it comes to communicate value-relevant, credible and comparable information related to how they perform on the different sustainability arenas.  When I was asked to be chairman of the Advisory Board, I said that I wanted LINC to be in charge of the data collection related to the 109 Swedish companies included in this first ranking. It has been very valuable to have the students involved in all our discussions and they also tell me that they find this collaboration valuable not the least due to the integration of financial and sustainability perspectives.

Where are we now?

The moderator of the seminar, Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson from Lund University Sustainability Forum, then asked the panel what it is we are aiming for.

– We still have a long way ahead of us until we meet the SDGs as well as “walk the talk”, but what would success mean in the university context?

Alexander Nymark, Vice president of LUS and Mathieu Mal, representative of Hållbart Universitet (HU), now joined the panel. A discussion followed about our responsibility to cut down our own climate emissions drastically. Mathieu Mal commented that:

– The university has an unique position to drive change in several ways and can act through both the impact on the community, the impact on students through the curriculum and the impact through daily operations. As an institution we must think of all small day to day things. To only serve vegetarian food is for example an easy step to take, especially in Sweden.

This led the discussion into the next part:

Where are we going?

– I am super happy that we just launched the global goals research school as the first university in the world. We must rethink what we are doing both in research and education, and I would like for us to be more bold, said Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

– I would also encourage you all to invite your colleagues who are not yet engaged in sustainability issues. We need to change the mindset inside our university, added Susanne Arvidsson.

Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson concluded the discussion on what needs to be done among both students, researchers and other employees at the university: “Be bold, talk a lot and ask questions. Especially the tricky questions!”

Alexander Nymark from LUS, raised a very important question about the mental wellbeing of the students. This is an area where action and concrete goals needs to be set:

– We would also like to remind the students that if you have any ideas or complaints, go to the student union. We speak for all the students, said Alexander Nymark.

The question of having a more official student sustainability office at the university also came up in the discussion, one possible concept being the ‘green office’ model championed by Dutch universities. This would complement the extensive work already being done by student organizations in Lund (a list of which you can find here) but help out with consistency and added resources.  

Mathieu Mal from Hållbart Universitet, an umbrella organization for local sustainability initiatives, pointed out that students could be included in a more active way in the university’s sustainability work. Sylvia Schwaag Serger agreed that it was a good idea with something like a ‘green office’, but she thought the name was a bit misleading, lacking the dimension of social sustainability.

The panel also discussed the recent op-ed, which urged universities to cut their emissions by half in five years (which we wrote about here). Mathieu Mal, speaking from a student’s point of view, shared the authors sentiments and urged university leadership to act to comply with them.

– Universities clearly should be the leaders in sustainability, said Mathieu Mal.

Sylvia Schwaag Serger agreed, but wanted to problematize the discussion a bit:

– We really need to think about what sustainability goals we want to set. Let’s think about it holistically and set smart goals, at the same time as we ensure it doesn´t jeopardize our other goals. For example, one way to combine emission goals and social sustainability is to use e-meetings to a larger extent.

How do we get there?

Lastly, the panel was tasked with finding pathways to a more sustainable university. A reoccurring theme, mentioned both by the student organizations in the panel, as well as people from the audience, was the importance of greener investments. The issue of mainstreaming sustainability through all of our educations was also raised.

– Think of it. We have some of the brightest minds here at Lund University. We ought to be able to integrate sustainability in all our courses, said Alexander Nymark from LUS.

When an organization wants to improve its sustainability work, which the university has as a stated aim, sustainable leadership is central:

– The tone from the management is so very important for the change that academia stands before, said Susanne Arvidsson, having studied sustainable management issues from a corporate perspective for over twenty years.

When the discussion with the audience started, the debate intensified, especially when it came to the issue of scientists “walking the talk”. Henner Busch, from LUCSUS, asked whether the university leadership would seek uncomfortable situations, where ambitious emission reductions might have to be prioritized over consensus across faculties.  He suggested several ‘battlegrounds’ such as flights between Lund and Stockholm, divesting university financial holdings, using Nordea as the standard bank for payroll and in general he questioned why the much needed transition is so slow within the university.

Sylvia Schwaag Serger commented this from her standpoint as the representative of the management of Lund University:

– I agree with you that for some things we need to put our foot down. At the same time, this is a very decentralized organization and I am still figuring out what battles to pick. Certain things can be done by management, some of which have been carried out already. We are also considering further options.

A final idea for action came from a representative from the teaching staff of Lund University. It concerned the possibility of starting more collaborations across faculties and holding sustainability courses for teachers and PhD students. This is an arduous process since there are still administrative routines blocking such cross-disciplinary initiatives, as one person in the audience said.

– This is something we are looking at right now, answered Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

The final audience question related to how the university communicates its sustainability efforts. When looking at the web site of Lund University, it is very difficult to find this information. Susanne Arvidsson commented that it is true that we have done meaningful changes, but we don´t communicate it as the corporate world would, through for example sustainability reports and other forms of outreach.

– Open hearings and dialogue are important in the transformation to a more sustainable organization, but we cannot stop at talking. We must make it happen! said Susanne Arvidsson.

Text: Nina Nordh, Sustainability Forum Lund University

The discussion was organized and moderated by Lund University Sustainability Forum.

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