Exploring the ambiguity: what faculty leaders really think of sustainability in higher education

Tarah Wright (Faculty of Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada)
Naomi Horst (Education for Sustainability Research Group, Faculty of Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Publication date: 5 April 2013



The purpose of this paper is to examine how a cohort of university faculty leaders in Canadian universities conceptualize sustainable development, sustainable universities, the role universities play in achieving a sustainable future, key issues facing the university, and the barriers to implementing sustainability initiatives on campus.


Research was collected through in‐depth interviews with university faculty leaders from university members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Interviews included both closed and open‐ended questions and two checklists focused on sustainable development and sustainable universities. Interview transcripts are analyzed through the identification of respondent themes and using N'Vivo software.


The majority of participants demonstrated they had previously given thought to their own understanding of sustainable development, but less had thought about the term sustainable university. The majority of participants would like to see their institutions incorporate sustainability in the avenues of education, research and daily operations. Participants agreed that the most obvious barriers to sustainability were financial and that leadership, incentive and demand are required to move forward with improving sustainability at universities.


There are few studies that explore the conceptualizations of sustainability, what constitutes a “sustainable university” and what role universities should play in achieving sustainability held by major stakeholders, including faculty leaders. Higher education scholars share a reasonably common understanding of these concepts, but if universities are accountable for creating a sustainable future, all university stakeholders too must share a common understanding. This paper attempts to make a contribution to this significant gap in the literature.



Wright, T. and Horst, N. (2013), "Exploring the ambiguity: what faculty leaders really think of sustainability in higher education", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 209-227. https://doi.org/10.1108/14676371311312905

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