What Sustains Sustainability Institutes

A new survey outlines the attributes and challenges of university-based sustainability research institutes.

WHAT CHARACTERISTICS do vibrant university-based sustainability institutes have in common? A recent report by two academics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor outlines a successful institute’s strongest attributes and biggest challenges.

The report’s authors include Andrew Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, and post-doctoral fellow Jessica L. Axson. Hoffman holds joint appointments at the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment, and he serves as education director at the university’s Graham Sustainability Institute. Axson works within the Ault Research Group, part of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. The pair wrote the report with support from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Eighteen institute directors responded to Hoffman and Axson’s 71-question survey. All of these directors cite water, climate, and environment as topics of research for their institutes. Energy, food, and environmental justice were the next three most-cited.

What Sustains Sustainability Institutes

What are the attributes of successful institutes? According to survey respondents, successful institutes maintain collaborative, not competitive, relationships with other campus departments. They must build strong relationships with administrators, faculty, and external partners; have dedicated staff members and an engaged, excited faculty; communicate the value of the institute’s activities to the university and other constituencies; and, of course, acquire steady, reliable, and preferably multiple sources of funding.

Where funding is concerned, one respondent notes that “a strong link with the development office makes a big difference, as does a generous advisory board.”

What is their biggest challenge? Some respondents feel as if they are often competing for resources, and even students. As one puts it, there is “the perception that funds provided to the institute would be better invested in the academic units.” The answer to this dilemma, say many of these directors, is to “adopt a service mindset” by providing “services and opportunities to the academic units that they cannot provide for themselves.” In other words, another notes, “be a source and not a sink.”

With what disciplines do they engage most? These directors heavily emphasize multidisciplinary research, most of which is conducted in collaboration with engineering, physical science, and environmental science departments. Disciplines such as public health and the humanities inspire moderate collaboration, while journalism and veterinary science inspire the least.

When asked what disciplines they believe are most underrepresented in their activities, these directors cite medical science, veterinary science, and education.

How do they measure success? Among these directors, number of research initiatives is the No. 1 measure of their institutes’ success. Also high on their lists are the number of faculty engaged, the number of students served, the amount of grant funding and revenue generated, and expenditures made. Another important metric is an institute’s level of external engagement, which these directors view as a measure of real-world impact. For example, one respondent notes that “ours is a ‘think and do’ tank that seeks to engage in projects where the results can reduce or avoid emissions in realworld scenarios.”

Hoffman and Axson hope these findings will help campus sustainability institutes fulfill what many of these directors view as a responsibility to serve both their communities and society. The co-authors write that “this report is intended … to help them understand their shared role in achieving the important goal of making the sum of the diverse activities of the university greater than the individual parts.”

Read “Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities: Innovations in Cross-Campus and Cross-Disciplinary Models.”