“Environmental management systems – a way towards sustainable development in universities”, PhD thesis of Kaisu Sammalisto, successfully defended, 17 December 2007, IIIEE, University of Lund

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 11 July 2008


Mulder, K. (2008), "“Environmental management systems – a way towards sustainable development in universities”, PhD thesis of Kaisu Sammalisto, successfully defended, 17 December 2007, IIIEE, University of Lund", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 9 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijshe.2008.24909caf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“Environmental management systems – a way towards sustainable development in universities”, PhD thesis of Kaisu Sammalisto, successfully defended, 17 December 2007, IIIEE, University of Lund

Article Type: Feature From: International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Volume 9, Issue 3

Many of us have now been working for years on “sustainabilising” their own university. Networks have been created, conferences have been organized to exchange experiences and deepen the understanding of this task. We tell each other our success stories, and that is good as it keeps us going: we are not the lonely mavericks, as some people like to depict us. We are part of a growing movement to sustainabilise higher education. The importance is almost self evident as universities train the leaders of tomorrow that should make the transition to a sustainable society happen.

Major changes in higher education are rare. The university came into existence in the middle ages as universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the community of masters and scholars that discussed the marvels of the divine creation. The growth of the size and the number of universities in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was accompanied by a disciplinarization of learning, i.e. a sharp division in subjects of learning, that each had their own methods, theories and heuristics. Disciplines became closed communities that admitted new members by strict procedures. In the nineteenth century a major reform occurred: the emergence of engineering schools. The basic renewal was that engineering schools were not based on the unity of knowledge of a discipline, but on functional requirements for professionals. Engineering schools were therefore often newly created, but in some countries they were integrated into the universities. In the twentieth century the same happened in regard to the demand for business managers that led to the creation of business schools, sometimes independent, sometimes integrated in universities.

In fact the partial shift from a disciplinary based organization to an organization that is partially based on functional requirements for its graduates has been the only major change in the university system. Issues like the ineffective lecturing methods and inadequate exams, the dubious relevance of certain scholarly activities for societal problems and the inadequacy of the disciplinary division have not given rise to major change. Therefore, the odds are not very good if:

  • we demand major changes from higher education in order to educate students for sustainable development;

  • we demand research for sustainable development; and

  • we demand sustainabilising the internal logistics of universities.

How could we ignite the fire that could change our universities? In 1996, the Swedish government decided that public authorities should act as role models in the shift towards sustainable development. This included universities. The directives that followed demanded universities to introduce environmental management systems (EMS).

Kaisu Sammalisto became engaged in sustainabilising her university in Gävle, Sweden. She also became the driving force of the Swedish network for sustainability in higher education. Sustainabilising one university is not enough; sustainability should be mainstreamed at every university, so it is important to evaluate the Swedish approach and its merits.

Kaisu Sammalisto studied the introduction of the EMSs at Swedish universities, and deepened the analysis for her own university. Her dissertation is one of the first elaborate attempts to analyze the success of an instrument to sustainabilise universities. How successful were EMSs? It is clear that the Swedish government directives created the spark that triggered initiatives at various universities. But although the directives were obligatory, a considerable number of universities did not react to it. Clearly the directives had to land at a favorable university presidents’office or at a university with some sustainability activism in order to be really effective. The Swedish universities were obliged to report their introduction of EMSs, but there was little feedback on the reporting which did not stimulate the universities to work really seriously with EMSs. The thesis is based on surveys and the long personal engagement in sustainabilising her own university. This meant that the author had at the one hand a tremendous personal experience to tap, but at the other hand a giant burden in regard to proving her scientific independence in regard to her object of study.

At the home university of Sammalisto, Gävle University, EMSs were effective in sustainabilising education and research. Moreover, they created the framework to institutionalize SD in the organization, which can assure its long-term survival as an important organizational characteristic. However, EMSs also raised fierce discussions among academics when research and education was affected. It is therefore to be determined further if EMSs are not only effective, but also the most efficient means to persuade university faculty to include SD in Research and Education. Approaches that aim at triggering the disciplinary pride of faculty to make their discipline also relevant in relation to SD, instead of emphasizing administrative duties, are then perhaps better off. Sammalisto quotes Gävle scientists:

It was difficult at first … . Then we started talking with our colleagues and we saw it in a longer perspective.

Sammalisto is right in taking this quote as a subtitle: we are successful if we achieve that faculty and staff of universities are engaging in debates about the meaning of SD for their activities. Enforcing our SD visions upon them will not turn out to be sustainable.

This first PhD in sustainabilising universities is an important step to gain academic credits for our activities. It is a milestone that does not provide the answer to all problems of sustainabilising universities, but certainly helps us determining more effective paths for our engagement.

The text of the thesis will become available at the website of IIIEE, Lund University: www.iiiee.lu.se/

Karel MulderDelft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands