Turning around leadership for sustainability in higher education

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Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education is a project funded by the Australian Learning & Teaching Council which involves the  University of Western Sydney (Lead), the Sustainable Futures Academy (Salzburg), the Australian National University, and the University of Gloucestershire.

A brochure which provides a summary of the context and intentions of  the project says:

The Project Team is seeking contributors to this international study. If you are an effective university leader in ESD or know someone who is, please contact a member of the Project Team. Leaders could be a Vice-Chancellor or President, a Deputy Vice Chancellor or Pro Vice Chancellor or Exective (sic) Director who has taken a lead in promoting or facilitating change towards Education for Sustainability.

We are also keen to identify Directors of Sustainability, Heads of Schools and Student Leaders who have influenced how a University addresses Education for Sustainability.

I note here that it is only very senior staff (Brigadier and above, as it were) who lead change.  Everyone else (junior officers and other ranks) can only "influence" it.  This is a distinction which I find very odd and one that seems to fly in the face of what one finds on the ground.  Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to valorise senior staff-led change which offers a peculiarly top-down view of what universities are actually like.

A distinction might be made between inspiring / stimulating change, and  managing / consolidating it.   However, there is no mention of management at all, which is odd given that universities are stuffed of managers of all kinds (many of whom think, quite erroneously, that they are leaders).  For me, leadership is about co-creating and jointly realising a vision of something better, more appropriate / effective, etc, whereas management is often only about shuffling resources one way or another.  It is obvious that the project is about the former, but this is not clear.

The project seems to imply that it is sensible (and helpful) to think of “an effective university leader in ESD” as opposed to an effective leader who understands that it is crucial to focus on sustainability (and knows something of how to do it).  Further, it implies that there are capabilities (that can be identified) which mark out such leaders from those who are merely effective leaders in universities (ie, run of the mill effective leaders).  But is this really the case?  I have to say that I'm sceptical.

Anyway, wouldn't the HE system as a whole (and societies at large) be much more effective if existing "effective leaders", everywhere, (together with their institutions) successfully addressed sustainability?   I hope that is the vision that the project actually has.  But does it?

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