Only running small-scale events and projects will not bring about an institutionalisation of sustainability within a university. On the contrary, my vision is that GOs also engage in political lobby work to integrate sustainability into the DNA of the university.
But how do you start this?
Constanze and Josef from the HU Nachhaltigkeitsbüro – the first GO initiative at a German university – shared their experiences with us on how the GO lead to the establishment of a high-level working group at HU Berlin. I hope that this is an inspiring example that other GOs want to follow.
January 2015: The GO organises a panel discussion on sustainability at the HU Berlin. 130 people attend the panel discussion. The GO invites the president as most senior member of the university to participate. Read the report about the panel discussion here.
April: The president invites the GO to present their ideas at a meeting of deans. The GO pitches the idea to establish a high-level sustainability committee. This is an interesting move, since the GO does not pitch for structural funding for the GO, but wants to kick-start a more high-level change process within the organisation itself. The GO is encouraged to further develop this idea.
June: The GO and the president meet to discuss the proposal for this committee in detail. They agreed on the composition, name and role that this committee should play. The official title of the sustainability committee becomes: Forum Nachhaltige Universität, ein gemeinsames Projekt der Universitätsleitung und der Studentischen Initiative HU Nachhaltigkeitsbüro (in English: Forum Sustainable University, a joint project by the university management and the Student Initiative HU Sustainability Office).
Summer: After that the president consults the vice-presidents on the establishment of this committee.
September: The Executive Board formally decides to establish the sustainability committee.
Autumn: Members are invited to the committee. A coordination team is established to facilitate the work of this committee, by scheduling meetings, taking notes, writing press releases or inviting external experts. This coordination team is very important to ease the work of the committee. The team is led by the head of the strategic planning office, which itself is part of the president’s office.
January 2016: The working group meets for the first time for two hours in mid-January 2016. It comprises 14 members, including the president, four students, two scientific staff, two professors, one dean, two administrative staff member, one technical staff person, as well as two members of the coordinating team of the committee. The group discusses their understanding of sustainability, as well as priority areas to focus on in the coming months.
I am quite excited about this process that the GO team kicked-off. There are three points that I believe that other GOs and GO initiatives can learn from this experience:
1) A podium discussion can be a great way to kick-start a strategic process at the university. It is a lot of work and requires good preparation, but can have a high-impact if you manage to bring together university management, student representatives, professors, staff and external experts.
2) I find the move of the GO initiative quite interesting to pitch the idea of a sustainability committee rather than to get structural funding in April 2015. This is a risky move, since it could have been an easy way out for the university to establish a sustainability working group that does not get a lot of stuff done. However, the team reminded us with this decision that the GO itself is not the end-goal of our work, but rather to embed sustainability within the strategic process of the university. By going for the committee option, their impact might be much larger than if they would have continued to lobby for funding from the university for the GO only.
3) Then I find the title of the working group interesting, as it makes clear that this is a joint project by university management, as well as the students. This requires students who want to and dare engage university management, and university management who wants to involve and work with students. 2016 will show if this turns into a great example of how to combine a bottom-up and top-down process.
Do not hesitate to get in touch with the HU Nachhaltigkeitsbüro if you want to learn more about their work, here. Also read their blogpost in German, about the founding of the sustainability committee.
Text by Felix Spira