Research Summary

Assessing the impact of a program designed to develop sustainability leadership amongst staff members in higher education institutes: a case study from a community of practice perspective

Sustainability Leadership Development Programs Need Adequate Institutional Support

Environmental Education Research

Colleges and universities have the opportunity to model sustainable practices and create environmentally conscious citizens. While many higher education institutions have recognized the value of education for sustainability for their students, staff members often do not have the same opportunity. Engaging all corners of these institutions is important to successfully become role models of sustainability practices. Education for Sustainability (EfS) professional-development programs for university staff are rare, and those that do exist are often one-time programs that lack long-term funding. This study sought to evaluate both the personal and the institutional impacts of a Sustainability Leadership Development Program (SLDP) at a variety of levels (i.e. personal perceptions of sustainability; program impact on participants’ understanding of sustainability) for staff and faculty at a college in Israel.

Education for Sustainability programs are typically developed for and implemented in academic settings that promote environmental leadership—specifically, institutions of higher education, or IHEs. By promoting EfS within academic communities, the hope is that more educators will become environmental leaders and adjust their teaching outcomes to focus on sustainability. IHEs have the potential to serve as learning communities for Education for Sustainability by helping teachers develop sustainability initiatives as they learn and work on these issues together.

The SLDP analyzed in this study took place at Green Valley College, a teachers’ college in Israel. The purpose of the SLDP was to give staff members the necessary knowledge and tools to further EfS at the college. The SLDP was a 56-hour series of lectures and workshops that took place over the course of eight days. The main two topics covered in the program were environmental activism and sustainable campuses. There was a significant focus on case studies of other schools and communities with successful SLDPs. The goal of this particular SLDP was to create a community where staff members could lead or at least be involved in the creation of sustainability projects at the college.

The participants in this study included 16 senior staff members, chosen at random, from Green Valley College. Eight participants were academic staff and eight were administrative staff. Researchers collected data on the SLDP by conducting interviews with all 16 participants after they completed the SLDP. Researchers asked the participants questions about their perceptions of the impacts of the SLDP and their perceptions of themselves as environmental leaders. The researchers also asked the participants whether they were implementing sustainability initiatives at the college after taking part in the program. The authors analyzed the content of the interviews to identify key themes and ideas.

Investing time and resources into building an EfS program is critical to the program’s long-term success and behavior change. Results showed that the SLDP created a community of practice where participants debated the meaning of sustainability. These debates caused participants to broaden their perspectives on the concept of sustainability as a more multi-dimensional topic. Participants reported that the program increased their environmental awareness and fostered a strong feeling of connection to the college. Many participants highlighted the opportunities for collaboration that were created by participating in the SLDP. Participants mentioned the idea of new networks through which they could exchange ideas. In fact, opportunities to collaborate had the most impact in terms of participants taking on leadership roles after completing the program.

While the SLDP did increase participants’ overall conception and awareness of environmental sustainability, there were still barriers to participation. Some staff did not become more involved in the college’s sustainability efforts due to lack of time or lack of knowledge regarding implementation strategies. Some staff reported that, even after the training, they were still confused about the concept of sustainability. Overall, participants felt that they did not have adequate support from their institution in terms of implementing EfS in their classrooms or across campus, generally. More specifically, staff felt that they needed additional mentoring after the program ended and that they did not receive the help they needed to implement new sustainability strategies such as recycling and waste reduction on campus.

This study may be limited by the fact that the researchers only interviewed senior staff members, so the results are probably not representative of the staff as a whole. While the authors did not report the total number of staff at Green Valley College, 16 staff members is likely a very small part of the entire population of staff members. The study makes clear the intensive efforts it takes to properly promote and support environmental education efforts in IHEs. In addition, the study results may not be generalizable to other institutions.

The authors state that SLDP programs are necessary for staff at higher education institutions, but they also point out that SLDPs need robust institutional support to be fully effective. In general, the authors recommend long-term funding for SLDPs so that institutions can allow more staff members to participate. In addition, institutions should provide incentives for participating in SLDPs such as bonuses, time off, or public recognition.

The Bottom Line

Sustainability leadership development programs (SLDPs) provide staff at higher education institutions with knowledge and tools to implement sustainability initiatives on college campuses. This study assessed the effectiveness of an SLDP for staff at a teachers’ college in Israel. Results showed that the SLDP helped staff broaden their understanding of sustainability and sustainability education and create a community of practice for new projects. However, participants did not feel that the program reached its full potential due to limited institutional support. The authors recommend that practitioners pursue long-term funding for SLDPs so that as many staff as possible can receive training and so that participating staff can receive continued mentoring.