Within the sustainability in higher education scene in Germany, the University of Hamburg hosts one of the most interesting sustainability governance structures: The Center for a Sustainable University. In German: Kompetenzzentrum Nachhaltige Universität (KNU).
Since one of rootAbility’s expertise is how to design and establish sustainability governance structures, I was very curious to learn more about the center. On a recent trip to Hamburg, I met Dr Claudia Schmitt – Managing Director and Scientific Coordinator – and Sophie Palm – Coordinating Assistant– to ask them some questions about the way the center is organised.
As a first question, I asked Claudia and Sophie if they have an organigram to better explain the rather complex governance structure of the KNU. I could not find a visual on the website.
The response: “An organigram already suggests that hierarchies, specific roles and responsibilities and reporting structures exist. We want to transcend structures and create something that can span across the different institutes, departments and hierarchies of the university. This is why we do not have an organigram.” I quickly hide the simple organigram that I drew up in my notebook.
Claudia and Sophie proceeded to explain the way the KNU is build-up:
At the core of the KNU are by now five teams comprising representatives from student, staff and faculty. These teams aim to bring different stakeholders together that are interested in working on sustainability issues at the university. Those are the five teams and what they do:
Team 1 “Sustainable University” (Zukunftsfähige Universität)
This team initiates and supports sustainability related research projects, facilitates interdisciplinary forums for exchange and advances the conceptual development of the center. It does this for instance, by supporting inter-disciplinary teams of researchers from the university to apply for up to 150 000 Euro in funding to support the development of research applications, as well as up to 50 000 Euro in funding for analysis that generate knowledge relevant to the sustainability process of the university. Claudia explains that the research funding directly comes from the university.
Team 2 “Sustainability in Education” (Nachhaltigkeit in Lehre und Studium)
As the name says, this team focuses its work on exchanging knowledge about and advancing sustainability in teaching and study programmes.
Team 3 “Postdoctoral Research Group ‘Sustainable Future'”(„Postdoc-Kolleg ‚Sustainable Future‘“)
This team comprises all Post-doc fellows that get funded by the KNU. Post-docs receive up to 2350 Euro in stipend for up to two years to conduct sustainability-focused research. Next to the first team, this team thus has a very strong research focus and presents a great initiative to strengthen sustainability research.
Team 4 “Sustainable Higher Education Administration”” (Nachhaltigkeit in Campus und Verwaltung)
This team brings together a diverse group of university staff from procurement, human resources, building management, campus planning, and organisational development. They focus on embedding sustainability in the administration of the university, including environmental topics like energy, waste, and building construction, as well as social topics like diversity and human resources.
Team 5 “Student projects for Sustainability” (Studierendenprojekte “MacheN”)
The KNU also support student projects. Student groups can apply for up to 1000 Euro in funding for student-led projects. Sophie, who coordinates this group, explains that student projects that have received funding meet in this team to connect, exchange experiences and brainstorm about different activities.
In addition to these five teams, Claudia and Sophie explain that the KNU has three more entities that deal with strategic and daily operations:
Steering Group (Leitungskreis)
This group comprises four members – three professors and the Managing Director of the KNU – who among others develop the long-term strategic plans of the KNU, and coordinate its internal processes. They meet at least once per month.
Extended Steering Group (Erweiterter Leitungskreis)
This group includes all members of the Steering Group, as well as chairs of four teams (see below) of the KNU. They meet once or twice per year to discuss and reflect upon issues that cut across the different KNU teams.
KNU Main Office (Geschäftsstelle)
This team includes the Managing Director, two deputies, five student assistants and the secretary. The team has a very broad range of responsibilities: It manages the daily operations of the KNU, distributes of research grants, manages public relations and the website, facilitates the work of the teams, supports student volunteers, runs projects on sustainability reporting, strengthens the university’s internal and external network, develops and applies new approaches for an environmentally and socially friendly university.
Wow! As you can see, this is quite a list to go through. Out of all these aspects of the KNU, I especially find the set-up with the different teams interesting, because it is an inspiring model to engage a larger community. Of course, there are also fluctuations and varying degrees of commitment among team members. Members contribute to the work of the groups on a voluntary basis. Also facilitating the work of these five groups is challenging, and not all groups are equally effective.
Still, I find that this model can be a source of inspiration for more mature Green Offices and Sustainability Hubs that want to take the next step at their university to engage a larger community: It is a great method to engage students, administrative staff, teaching and research faculty.
Also forming an extended steering group from all these teams that then meets and discusses cross-cutting themes relevant to all groups sounds powerful. If you want to set-up a similar structure at your university, you can learn more about the KNU on its website.
Text by Felix Spira. Many thanks to Claudia Schmitt and Sophie Palm for sharing their insights.