Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities

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Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities

Innovations in cross-campus cross-disciplinary models
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Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 12:15pm

This is a study of the distinctive characteristics, activities, challenges and opportunities of a specific type of sustainability institute, one that spans the many disciplines of the university and, to do so, reports to upper administration (provost or vice president of research). Among research universities within the Association of American Universities (AAU), 19 were identified, and 18 agreed to participate in this study. 

Despite variation among institutes, five broad themes emerged. First, these types of institutes can be provocative as some perceive them to be competing for resources, most notably money and students. Second, the way to overcome such tensions is to complement and not “compete with academic departments” by adopting a service mindset. Third, a key success factor is broad participation, engagement and relationship building across a wide array of stakeholders in the university. Fourth, be sure to communicate widely and often the value proposition you provide to the university and your constituencies. Fifth, but certainly not the least important success factor, “be configured to earn your way” by securing steady, reliable, diverse and long term funding.

While the institutes in this study are focused on sustainability, the information and lessons presented could be applicable to any topical institute that seeks to link the multiple disciplines of a university campus into a common endeavor. Thus, the new organizational model these institutes represent offers broader value to fostering a “one university” culture that breaks down siloes among schools and encourages multi-disciplinary research in the service of society. 

Keywords: Research, Reports & Publications | Andy Hoffman | Cross-campus collaboration | Education | Erb Institute | Innovation & Technology | Sustainability Institutes