The essence of a university’s mission is to make the world a better place through the advancement of knowledge and ideas.
In this time of climate breakdown, universities have the power to provoke what the environmental campaigner George Monbiot calls a “new moral imagination” about how to improve the lives of people across the globe and the planet as a whole.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have an overall relevance to governance. Governors should make it their business to understand, monitor, and support the goal of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions. The governing body of a university can occupy a leading position in this social discourse. By holding university executives to account, governing bodies can show their communities that they can see the environmental crisis from other perspectives.
Governors understand their role as custodians of the sustainability of the organisation, but must also recognise that this has to include the duty to exercise environmental stewardship. As well as a responsibility to safeguard the interests of the university, through monitoring and challenging the management of its operations, governors have a broader responsibility for the impact of these actions on the environment to society as a whole, the planet in other words. The notion of environmental justice must therefore be central to their concerns.
Governing bodies could set an example for the rest of the university community by being transparent about their activities in relation to environmental stewardship.
The term bioregion was coined by Kirkpatrick Sale, who described it as a part of the earth’s surface whose boundaries are determined by natural attributes (plants, wildlife, water, climate, topography), and the human settlements and cultures that have developed within and around them. It is a philosophy that calls for humans to get to know the surrounding land and to live with it in a sustainable earth-sensitive fashion.
Bioregionalism implies developing an awareness of ecological relationships in a given region and practising social behaviour that befits and enhances that area. In terms of the UN SDGs, goal 11 of sustainable cities, and goal 15 – to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems – is of particular relevance.
There is a parallel here between this and the UK government’s language of levelling up. Levelling Up the United Kingdom, the white paper published in February 2022, describes clusters – geographical concentrations of institutions – as “ecosystems”. The use of this term has the potential to inspire reflection on all of the interrelated attributes of a university’s surrounding area, as well as the scale of the changes affecting them as a result of climate breakdown.
In light of climate breakdown, and the strategic imperatives behind levelling up, governors need to ask how their university lives in its place and with the land within its own bioregion.
Thinking beyond the need to listen and respond to the political mood music of our time and to be responsible to generations that follow both in this country and beyond, there are also questions about how universities’ place-based agendas benefit biodiversity and the ecosystem in all senses of that word – as an ecological community and as an interrelated network of people and organisations?
The notion of ecofeminism is that women’s role in the development of a green way of life may be transformative, if not the determining factor, in saving the planet. It is a school of thought that sees humanity and industrialization as gendered as masculine in ways that oppress and disproportionately impact on women along with minority groups. The UN Sustainable Development goal of gender equality and empowering all women and girls speaks in support of this argument.
Ecofeminism holds that women find it easier to talk about the crisis caused by humankind’s impact on nature. However, in many cases it is individuals from minority communities and the Global South, as well as women, who are the leading voices in current debates about climate change and environmental justice, so the term is more broadly applicable to their approach. As called for by ecofeminism and leading environmental campaigners, the world requires a culture that foregrounds caring and compassion over control and exploitation, concerns that can clearly be identified as crucial to responsible stewardship.
Governors therefore need to know what the contribution of women, underprivileged, or minority groups is to climate justice and sustainability at the university. Governors also need to know if women’s voices are being empowered and heard in this debate and understand what level of exposure to these voices the governing body has.
The final concept is internationalism – or global partnerships for sustainable development, to use the language of the UN SDGs. One of the irrefutable qualities of a university is how it is enriched by the perspectives and character of international staff and student colleagues. An openness to ideas and people is what education and research is all about and they are key to unlocking the power of universities to change the world for the better.
All universities should have a strategic objective to learn from the insights of international staff and students, in particular those from countries in the Global South who are disproportionately affected by the adverse impacts of climate change. This should be embedded throughout the organisation, from governance and management to research and the curriculum.
Governors may therefore ask how the university is amplifying the insights of international staff and students, especially those from the Global South. Those on governing bodies need to hear about how the activities of wealthy western nations impact on the lives of people in bioregions on the other side of the world and understand what work is being done to diversify the curriculum in their institution.
What learning is harnessed from teaching and research carried out by governors’ institutions in other parts of the world? For example, governors at institutions where there is work and research into Net Zero is being conducted should be able to draw on this to inform their own knowledge base in areas such as the mining of materials for battery production and the environmental issues arising from this. The learning that is harnessed from teaching and research carried out by an institution in other parts of the world should also be understood, as well as what a university does to challenge barriers to international collaboration and study.
Acting locally and globally
The UN SDGs are now a major strand of university efforts to work across borders and should be a standing agenda item for governors. As a community-based organisation, a university should play a leading role in implementing the goals, influencing national and international policy and driving change.
A governing body that discusses the SDGs regularly sets the tone for collective action and helps support those working in related education and research, demonstrating that their voices are heard. Every project considered by the governing body should be seen through the lens of the SDGs: this would be one mechanism through which governors could demonstrate impact and responsibility towards society.
Governors need to be comfortable using the language and terminology of sustainability, climate breakdown and environmental justice. It is time for them not only to act locally but also to think and act globally because what they do here can make a difference elsewhere. By finding their voice in this debate – perhaps by reflecting on some of these ideas – governors can inspire and empower the community they serve to tell their stories about what a better world looks like.