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Understanding and advancing campus sustainability using a systems framework

Stephen M. Posner (Office of Sustainability, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont, USA)
Ralph Stuart (Department of Environmental Health and Safety, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 4 July 2013




University campuses behave as complex systems, and sustainability in higher education is best seen as an emergent quality that arises from interactions both within an institution and between the institution and the environmental and social contexts in which it operates. A framework for strategically prioritizing campus sustainability work is needed. This paper seeks to address these issues.


First, a conceptual model is developed for understanding institutions of higher education as systems. Second, a leverage points framework is applied to experiences at the University of Vermont in order to evaluate campus sustainability efforts. Finally, real‐world examples are used to analyze and prioritize campus sustainability leverage points for advancing organizational change.


This systems thinking approach identifies key leverage points for actions to improve sustainability on campus. The leverage points framework is found to be valuable for: evaluating the potential of individual programs or actions to produce system‐wide change; coordinating individual programs into a strategic effort to improve the system; and making connections between campus and the surrounding social and environmental contexts. Advancing campus sustainability is found to be strengthened by particular ways of thinking and an organizational culture committed to continuous improvements and learning improved ways of doing business based on environmental and social, as well as institutional, benefits.


Campus sustainability workers must develop a prioritization process for evaluating which ideas to move forward on first. Systems thinking can cultivate our ability to consciously redesign and work with the systems that are in place, to intentionally pursue organizational improvements, and to plan and coordinate sustainability programs with potential for big changes.



Posner, S.M. and Stuart, R. (2013), "Understanding and advancing campus sustainability using a systems framework", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 264-277.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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