Universities must put “goal” first| LE Campus Learn, Share, Connect


In the time it takes the typical university student to complete his studies, profound change on an almost unimaginable scale will have to sweep through all sectors of society, including the universities. But are our institutions up to this extraordinary challenge?

Probably not, according to a recent interdisciplinary special issue of the journal Frontiers of sustainability focused on the subject Reorienting universities for sustainable human progress, that we edited with Stephen Sterling. With A planetary break is looming, the volume’s articles describe a global university sector that, despite pockets of inspiring action, is collectively slow and sleepy, wedded to outdated, siled thinking and complicit in promoting a high carbon consumer life.

According to one contributor, Alison Green of the Scientists Without Warning campaign group, “academic institutions are failing in their primary mission to humanity and the planet, and are increasingly part of the problem, not the solution”.

So how can universities legitimately become socially embedded catalysts for the transformational change needed? For many, this requires a deep, deep reimagining of their core academic mission – their existential reason for existing. Their goal.

We use ‘purpose’ here in the sense that the business world adopts this term: the primary raison d’être of an organization is its optimal strategic contribution to the long-term well-being of all.

For business, the goal is the serious response to the unsustainability that has arisen from what some might think is the most unlikely of places. In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest and most powerful financial asset manager, BlackRock, told all companies they invest in that “society demands that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose”.

A year later, the bastion of liberal economic thought, the US Business Roundtable, declared that the purpose of business was no longer to maximize profits for shareholders but to promote an economy that serves all. Meanwhile, the British Academy 2019 report in “The Future of Business” concluded that “the purpose of business is to solve problems for people and the planet profitably – not to profit from causing problems”.

Cheap energy and the unleashing of financial interest spurred the “Great accelerationin economic growth, material consumption and massive improvements in well-being. At the same time, it has led to a galloping deterioration of the basis of this well-being.

A century of “development” is about to be undone in a decade and the difficulties are locked in there. Recognizing this, and spurred on by a few financial crises, businesses – or at least an enlightened part of them – are going through a very deep and difficult time. necessary identity crisis. And the “goal” is what comes out of it.

Reflected at the macro level”welfare economics“, more and more companies are moving from the short-term myopia of financial self-interest to a sustainable and ambitious reason for existing that works to create long-term well-being for all (that is, i.e. durability).

This practical reorientation of activities to directly address the specter of impending unsustainability provides a potential roadmap for universities. After all, a common criticism of many higher education actors is that universities are becoming too “commercial”, adopting business models that rely on the commodification and commodification of the university product – whether it is services on campus, student courses, research results or technology. innovation.

For many, the solution is for academia to free itself from its new entrepreneurial mission in the service of the economy. and for academic leaders to distance themselves from commercial thinking. But is new frontier business thinking – goal-driven business thinking – exactly what universities need to follow to change quickly and at scale?

In our newspaper, Reorienting universities: the path to a goal, we explore the parallels between the corporate and university response to unsustainability and what a quality response might look like – a goal-oriented university. We draw on the experiences of companies that have embarked on the same path and offer insight into the organizational factors that will motivate it.

Above all, university leaders – governors and executive directors – must define the objectives of their institution unique contribution to the long-term global well-being agenda and ensure clarity of the value they intend to create (and protect) in achieving it. Strategic goals, strategy, KPIs, investment decisions, and reward strategies all need to be aligned.

However, even with this level of direction, the purpose must permeate the entire organizational culture – both its intangible cultural software (such as assumptions and behavior patterns) and its tangible cultural material (such as structures, processes and artefacts), with the aim of providing a frame of reference for short, medium and long-term decision-making. Therefore, the key task of leadership must be recognized as nothing less than the creation of an overall goal-oriented organizational system that works for all faculties, departments and professional services and requires the participation of all stakeholders, from staff and students.

Any meaningful goal, in the context of systemic threats to long-term collective well-being, is likely to be very complex, which means that narrow disciplinary interests are less useful, and the blurring, mixing and breaking down of boundaries long-standing departmental, standards and for-profit intermediaries is likely. This is something that innovations such as the DeSci movement already facilitate.

Additionally, increased responsibility for addressing acute issues of societal concern, where the solutions will often depend or have to be defined by those who face them, will mean that scholars will co-create lasting research relationships with the communities they serve. and the stakeholders they rely on. to help them do it.

Therefore, within such a reoriented academic culture, research practices would become, by virtue of being goal-oriented, consciously interdisciplinary, participatory, reflective, innovative and ethical. This means that each scholar can help the institution on its way by examining how it breaks down the assumptions and structures that enclose narrow research concerns and isolated thinking.

Ultimately, as society clarifies its expectations for all organizations to prove their true worth, under the shadow of a precipice for humanity, the success of universities will be measured by their ability to plan and execute their objective – and to report on it transparently. Yes, sound financial management will be an essential means to achieve this and finance-based KPIs will always be essential – but only in the service of delivering significant, measurable and sustainable welfare gains for society and society. nature in general.

In the last window of opportunity for change, is anything less than a goal just window dressing?

Victoria Hurth is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, Fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Co-Facilitator of the ISO Working Group on Organizational Governance.

Iain Stewart is the El Hassan bin Talal Research Chair in Sustainable Development at the Royal Scientific Society in Amman, Jordan, is Co-Director of the Center for Climate Change & Sustainability at Ashoka University, India, and is Professor of Geoscience Communication at the Sustainable Earth Institute, University of Plymouth, UK.

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