Universities are complex ecosystems where every member contributes to shaping a sustainable future. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) results from the interaction of individual and institutional efforts. When universities actively encourage and support their faculty to connect their work to the SDGs, a tremendous engine for positive change is set in motion. The university partners in the SDG-iLevel project conducted interviews with administrative and management staff at their universities to gain a deeper understanding of how they perceive and evaluate their contributions to the SDGs.
A humanistic worldview and the SDGs
Among the interviewees, there was no doubt that sustainability is fundamental to human survival. One person at University of Rijeka stated: “It is necessary to think in a humanistic and anthropological way, regardless of what is our professional background. Everything we do should allow people to develop in the best possible way and lead society in a good direction. We all know what it means to be human and we all know what our relationship with nature should really be. Society should make sure that each person becomes the best version of themselves and that we all behave in line with sustainability, as something that we need to achieve.”
The importance of the SDGs was emphasized: “I think is a very, very important initiative and sustainability is not something that we can expect that societies solve by themselves at a global scale. We need a very articulate, specific programme, with a kind of legal framework to support it. It's a an enormous challenge to collectively address very pressing problems that are not nation-specific, but are on a planetary scale as we are really talking about survival of the species at the end of the day. I'm very impressed by the concept of the SDGs and that they include also elements of justice and fairness. It's an amazing initiative and it is of historical importance.”
The influence of mindset and personal engagement
Faculty and staff are at the heart of any university, and their manifold expertise and passion can relate to the SDGs in many ways. Academics do research, write papers, and advocate for causes that are directly or indirectly related to the SDGs. They may inspire and educate the next generation of leaders, fostering a sense of environmental, social, and economic responsibility.
Regarding the importance of sustainability, one interviewee stressed that, “for me, it's not just a buzzword that I've heard somewhere, but it's something I've lived with all my professional life”. This statement underlines the genuine and intrinsic nature of his commitment to sustainability, emphasizing that it's not a trend to follow but a core value deeply embedded in his work.
The potential role of administrative staff in promoting sustainability initiatives
Administrative employees may contribute to these initiatives through building sustainable campus environments, following ethical procurement methods, and cultivating an inclusive culture. In the pursuit of fostering a culture of sustainability within universities, the importance of organic collaboration and unstructured dialogue cannot be underestimated.
One member of the administrative staff from Kaunas University of Technology suggested, about what is needed at the institutional level, “that it is very important to create moments and spaces, opportunities for people in the University to meet and just be together and have space to talk about their research. Then there is this natural kind of meeting and grouping that gives birth to research and other decisions. I wouldn't say that we need a sustainability manager or something like that in the university to go out there and find and bring everybody together, but more informal opportunities for natural initiatives to emerge.”
Another interviewee commented that, "my biggest effort is to keep different research interests around or under the broader umbrella of sustainable development". It suggests that this individual is committed to aligning various research interests and activities within the university with the SDGs. He sees their role to create an environment where research activities, even those spanning different disciplines or areas of interest, are harmonized under the broader umbrella of sustainability to maximize their collective impact.
University level vs. individual level
It is clear that the SDGs are being implemented at a micro, meso and macro level within university. Moreover, addressing the SDGs is becoming a prerequisite for financing research. So, UN policy has a substantial impact on universities, but at the same time there are already teams working in the field of sustainability as recognized by one of the interviewees: “I think universities react more at the institutional level because there are demands to engage in this type of activities. But there are colleagues or projects of people who are already working towards sustainability. I think is important to create interaction.”