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Becoming a Sustainable University

Published onNov 16, 2022
Becoming a Sustainable University

A sustainable society is a prerequisite for all present and future human aspirations. Yet, in both developed and developing nations, the rapid environmental decline in its countless manifestations is now hindering the realization of even the most essential human needs (freedom, shelter, and food as articulated in a range of human rights treaties). Sustainability thereby is the single most important societal challenge facing humankind, a fact for example reflected in the proportion of the overall EU research budget earmarked for sustainability research (30%). Actually, human activities put more pressure on the earth and its nature than ever before. This year “Earth Overshoot Day” fell on July 28, meaning that humanity has used all the biological resources that the earth generates during 2022 in the midst of the summer and before we even finalized writing this short essay.1 The second tranche of the sixth IPCC report from April 2022 finds climate impacts are already more widespread and severe than expected with just 1.1 degrees Celsius, and climate risks will quickly escalate, even with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees which most scientists now agree has become unattainable.

Extreme heat, severe floods, withering droughts, food security problems, species extinction and lost ecosystems caused by anthropocentric climate change are now starting to impact our daily lives. These challenges are exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, leading to more than a quarter of a billion more people worldwide at high risk of ending up in extreme poverty this year.2 To make things even bleaker, all the above-mentioned events are subject to so-called “infowars” and polarization in society at large, seriously undercutting our democratic institutions (which in itself is a Sustainable Development Goal).

What is then the role of universities in this looming sustainability crisis? At the core of any university lies the mission of vigorous truth-seeking teaching and research. Its institutional independence (even though under constant debate and threat) and the principles it adheres to such as free inquiry and debate provides it with a unique and essential function in society, and the challenges it faces. Taking this simplified mission, for the hard sciences the answer to that question becomes rather straightforward. Scientists in these fields are giving us quantifiable facts about the state of the natural world and the creatures living in it. During the pandemic, scientists have for instance provided us with methods to mitigate Covid-19. First through the use of masks, social distancing and regular testing, and later by developing vaccines in record time.

There exists, however, no vaccine that can produce a sustainable society in which human rights are respected across global value chains nor can the scientific reports of the IPCC mitigate the emissions of CO2. This will ultimately be dependent upon political, social, economic, and behavioral choices. It is exactly here where the potential impact lies of the social sciences: it seeks to inform these qualitative choices through its research. After all, on the basis of countless experiments, conservation psychologists have shown that the root cause for environmental decline and social problems resides in human behavior rather than in human nature. This implies that the quest for sustainability in fact is a quest to influence and organize human behavior in novel and innovative ways. As a leading and internationally recognized research-led university specializing precisely in human behavior and its societal implications, Tilburg University is well positioned to take up that challenge. This is also true because the channeling of human behavior in pursuit of sustainability calls for collaborative efforts of disciplines that are all well represented at the university. Economists, legal scholars, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, philosophers; each possess parts of the invaluable know-how needed to steer humankind towards a sustainable future.

In this short essay, we explore the ideal of Tilburg University as a “Sustainable University”, fit for the future. Here, like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we take a broad notion of sustainability, including all aspects of sustainable development. We will first examine what the concept and core elements of a “Sustainable University” entail. We will then proceed by providing a quick scan to what extent Tilburg University is on its way to becoming a Sustainable University, by looking at its research and teaching portfolio as well as looking at the university as a management organization. The university plays a key role at different levels, not limited to its core research and teaching activities. We recognize that it also is a large economic organization making management and investment decisions, it maintains a materially complex campus that needs to be a flourishing space for student life, it is a workplace with a regional impact, an employer, etc. However, as we will show, it seems that Tilburg University perhaps puts a somewhat disproportionate focus on the physical aspects of a Sustainable University, thereby overlooking its important social function. As this essay is intended as a constructive starter for a university broad debate, we will finish by making some suggestions that will hopefully continue the debate about a Sustainable University.

What is a Sustainable University?

Scholars have been dealing with the question what makes a university a “sustainable organization”. Following Munguia Vega (2019), a sustainable organization is an organization that follows or is committed to advancing the principles of sustainable development under the 2030 Agenda. For a university, this would mean covering its important aspects, including sustainable education, research, and organizational structure. Particularly, Velasquez et al. (2006) require a Sustainable University to address, involve, and promote, “on a regional or a global level, the minimization of negative environmental, economic, societal, and health effects generated in the use of their resources in order to fulfill its functions of teaching, research, outreach and partnership, and stewardship in ways to help society make the transition to sustainable life-styles”. The study of Velasquez et al. outlines a continuous improvement model with four steps that a Sustainable University can take to strategically move towards sustainability, including defining a sustainability vision and mission (steps 1-2), and reorganizing its organizational structure in such a way that a sustainability commitment is reflected (step 3). Here, a sustainability committee with a representation of a large variety of stakeholders of the university, including students, academic and non-academic staff members and external stakeholders, can play an important role in formulating and establishing policies, objectives and targets. It also should have a main decision-making function. Finally, step 4 involves developing and implementing sustainability strategies that cover all important aspects of the university. To ensure the effectiveness of their strategies, sustainable universities can conduct a sustainability audit.

Tilburg University explains that it seeks to study and understand society and in this way contributes to solving complex societal issues. This can be understood as a mission statement that requires the university to be a Sustainable University, which also follows from its webpage section that is called “Towards a Sustainable University” (Tilburg University, 2022). Here, it states to be “committed to a sustainable society and encourages researchers, teachers, support staff, students, and stakeholders to actively contribute”. According to its 2027 Strategy Weaving Minds & Characters Tilburg University wants “to set an example in the sustainability of [the] campus and activities based on [TiU’s] responsibility to society”, and fully realizes “that the position of the weakest in society are very vulnerable and that the ecological issues are enormous. They require [TiU] to take responsibility for keeping society and the earth livable for the generations to come.” It thus seems that Tilburg University has a sustainability vision and mission (steps 1-2). To be complete here, we should also mention the 2019-2021 Sustainability Plan; although this program is no longer in place, it sets out a clear sustainability vision for the unuiversity: “TiU is committed to making a measurable contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals in research and in education, in the day-to-day management of the campus and in the management of our assets” (De Kort et al., 3).

There is no evidence of a sustainability committee with a decision-making function within the governance structure of Tilburg University (step 3). Prior to the introduction of the 2027 Strategy, however, there was a Sustainability Program with a dedicated group of the university staff members (the Sustainability Program Team), also including professor Kees Bastmeijer (Professor in Nature Conservation and Water Law). The 2019-2021 Sustainability Plan explains that the Sustainability Program falls within the portfolio of the President of the Executive Board, but that the Executive Board is supported by the sustainability program team and accompanying teams (De Kort et al., 27). An updated version of this Sustainability Plan is not (yet) available, the Sustainability Program has been canceled and it remains very unclear what would happen from 2022 onwards. It perhaps seems that Tilburg University assumes that sustainability is an integral part of the 2027 Strategy and that such a separate program and committee is no longer a necessity. This, however, appears to be a dangerous route; sustainability is a complex matter - often competing with more short-term objectives - and the allocation of talent and time in relation to sustainability can be optimized in an independent committee that includes stakeholders from various perspectives, particularly also including academic staff. In this way, a science-based and holistic approach to sustainability and a Sustainable University can be ensured. The sustainability committee may not only take part in the decision-making; at the same time, a (subgroup of) such a committee can also have a monitoring role to safeguard Tilburg University’s sustainability ambitions in all its facets.

What about Tilburg University’s concrete sustainability ambitions and strategies (step 4)? The 2027 Strategy also has a section “Sustainability and Climate” in which it claims to set “very ambitious goals” and structurally embed sustainability in its operations. Particularly, the university is “aiming for a top 10 position in the Green Metric University ranking”. In doing so, it wants to reduce the CO2 footprint of business trips to zero by 2027, generate its own energy, and purchase and cater “the most sustainable products”. Tilburg University adds that sustainability also needs to be reflected in research and education, but does not provide any concrete examples here, instead of referring to its educational profile, hinting at a connection to the Sustainable Development Goals, and a (to-be-published?) Sustainability Plan for 2027. Some of the promises are already quite concrete – like net-zero by 2027 for business trips and generating its own (we suppose renewable!) energy. But in many respects, the 2027 Strategy provides much more ambiguities than clarity and leaves us with many questions. For instance, the reference to the Green Metric University ranking. As many scholars in different research areas are aware – notwithstanding their personal experiences with all kinds of (personal) rankings and indices – any ranking inhibits the danger of box-ticking. To make sure we know what we are talking about (as befits good academics), we explored the Green Metric University ranking. What stands out is that of the Dutch universities, Wageningen, Groningen, and Leiden are already in the latest top ten. Tilburg University is currently at place 78 globally and at place 34 among all European universities. The ranking is based on six pillars, including the university’s 1) setting and infrastructure (for instance, total campus area covered by plants), 2) energy and climate change (for instance, the number of renewable energy sources), 3) waste (for instance, whether there is a recycling program for the waste), 4) water (for instance, whether there is water recycling), 5) transportation (for instance, the relative number of vehicles on campus), and 6) education and research (for instance, the relative share of courses and research on sustainability). Whereas this all sounds quite plausible, we were quite surprised that education and research form only one of the six aspects and only counts for 18%, which is the same weight as the component ‘transportation’ receives. Clearly, research and education are at the core of the important role a university has in society. Of course, a sustainable campus is important as well and should reflect the values of a Sustainable University, but focusing on a score that focuses for 80% on this aspect, may very well bring Tilburg University in the position of hitting the target but missing the point.

Our advice would be to use a holistic approach that includes all important aspects of a Sustainable University – in any case research, education and the organizational structure – in Tilburg University’s strategy to become a Sustainable University. To this end, in the next sections, we highlight some further findings and observations related to sustainable research, sustainable education and a sustainable organizational structure.

Sustainable Research

Some argue that a university should take a stand on societal issues that they deem essential to the world’s future whereas others maintain that the university should remain ‘neutral’ value. It is certainly true that the university as an institution must exercise a degree of institutional restraint as its academic staff needs a maximum degree of freedom to remain at the forefront of cutting-edge research: a university that will impose a (strict) research program will always be less advanced in its output than its competitors. It is clear to us that a university’s core task is to foster the ability of its academic staff to conduct truth-seeking research.

By choosing ‘Understanding Society’ as its mission statement, Tilburg University has expressed its ambition as an institution to be part of society and conduct research that has societal relevance without expressing how or on the basis of what values it wishes to make that contribution. It is however evident that the university is a value-laden institution. For example, we adhere to scholarly principles when ranking arguments, articles, and student’s exams as we are dependent on these for our credibility as a university. Other values – among which a commitment to sustainability – are incorporated in Tilburg University’s statements and strategy documents as we have just discussed. These institutional values are important as they can guide how we work and protect long-term processes. The question that we want to table here is if Tilburg University should not change its mission statement to ‘Understanding a Sustainable Society’. Some people again would find this too bold and not neutral enough, but does that position really stand?

Making a real commitment to sustainability could hardly be considered controversial given the scientific evidence of its relevance. For example, among economists, it has now become mainstream to include the costs and benefits for nature in an economic analysis (e.g. Daly et al, Raworth). Similarly, when public figures persistently disregard moral, scientific, legal, or historical truths (about e.g. climate change), academics have a responsibility to speak out. Moreover, on its ‘Towards a Sustainable University’ webpage, Tilburg University already identifies sustainability in research as an important pillar, with the goal to “aim to better understand international, regional and local sustainability problems and develop knowledge to arrive at solutions”.

Waas, Verbruggen and Wright define research for sustainable development as “all research conducted within the institutional context of a university that contributes to sustainable development” (Waas et al., 629-636). This broad notion of sustainability is also adopted in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Tilburg University in particular seems to fit well within this definition with the projects it highlights on its website, including the Zero Hunger Lab, the SMILE (Social Innovation Labs Energy Transition) project, the life on land research, the Constitutionalizing the Anthropocene project, to name but a few. The university can hence rely on an impressive and proven track record in the field of sustainability research. In part this is institutionalized in a specialized multidisciplinary Tilburg Sustainability Center (TSC). TSC has a clear focus on climate change, environmental economics, corporate social responsibility and sustainable investment, which aligns perfectly with the EU’s (and its research programs) explicit quest for ‘social innovation’ to achieve the transition towards a sustainable, innovative and competitive society.

Hence, by adopting a new mission statement Tilburg University shapes and distinguishes its identity as a university that commits to a sustainable future. In times of crisis as we are currently experiencing, such a commitment to a long-term principle can guide us, and protect us against the imperious time of the moment.

Sustainable Education

While prestigious projects in sustainability are highlighted on Tilburg University’s website, it remains rather silent on education. In the summer of 2022, the website “Towards a Sustainable University” was apparently adapted, without mentioning education or providing an overview of courses in the field of sustainability anymore.3 There exists however a national website called “duurzamestudies. nl”, showing only two programs from Tilburg University: the ‘Msc Economics: Sustainable Development’ and ‘Msc Organizing for Global Social Challenges’, both tracks of existing Master’s programs. A quick search in the Osiris Study Guide for 2022 shows us that 16 courses are found when searching for “sustain” in the course section. Another one pops up when searching for the word “duurzame”. Although we have to admit that our search was rather limited, we highly doubt whether these 17 identified courses offer a complete picture of the university’s sustainability courses.

One of the programs with a focus on Sustainability Tilburg university does offer is the optional minor is “Law and a Sustainable Future” for students that are in the third year of their Bachelor’s program at Tilburg Law School.4 This minor enters its third year in the 2022-2023 academic year and, before its introduction, we needed to present our proposal for the minor to a student panel to test if it did actually spark interest of our target group. As we enthusiastically presented, the students were much more reluctant in their response. Certainly, there were students that immediately embraced the courses, and the ideas on which the program was built but at least half of the eight-member panel remained on the fence. Asked for their opinions, one student responded that the minor sounded “rather normative, and not very neutral”. When asked to elaborate on what this meant, the student compared it to the other new minor that also had been just presented (consisting of courses on criminal, administrative and civil law) which he deemed much more “objective and neutral”. Another student expressed concern that it would be “too specialized” because the student had – understandably – not yet selected any field of interest within the broader Dutch law program. Our response to the concern of the last student was easier: as sustainability affects all aspects of society, all kinds of lawyers are needed to respond to legal sustainability issues, from public lawyers working in Government positions to business lawyers working for big companies dealing with for example consumer demands, competition issues or investment decisions. Sustainability has for better or for worse become mainstream, and this is more and more reflected in the job market.

The concern of the first student, however, puzzled us. How, we asked, is criminal law not normative and based on values that are typical for the moral culture of a jurisdiction? The choice to de-criminalize euthanasia is made in the Netherlands on the basis of respect for human dignity, whereas in the UK human dignity is used as a basis to criminalize euthanasia. And what about the recent abortion verdict of the US Supreme Court? The complete opposite interpretation of the concept of human dignity makes apparent how subjective the concepts are on which we base our laws. Of course, the student just expressed his training as a law student. We – and any other law schools in the Netherlands – are mostly busy transferring knowledge on law as it is, without questioning the values and the choices that underpin those laws, and legal decisions. We suspect that this may not be very different for most other disciplines that Tilburg University harbors.

That the university does have ambitions to not only deliver graduates that are good economists, lawyers, sociologists, etc., but also responsible citizens and professionals becomes clear when reading its teaching profile (Tilburg Educational Profile, or ‘TEP’). TEP focuses on “Skills” and “Character” in addition to “Knowledge”. Character includes the following elements: intellectual independence, critical mindset, social responsibility, scientific responsibility, and entrepreneurship.5 Integrating sustainability as a core concept of our values and our university could at the very least make students more aware of the choices we as a society face and make. Our proposition to change Tilburg University’s mission statement into “Understanding a Sustainable Society” would not only commit the university to a sustainable future in terms of research but definitely also its education profile. It, therefore, strikes us that whereas for instance entrepreneurship is explicitly addressed as part of TEP’s Character trait, sustainability is not mentioned at all. Or would “social responsibility” perhaps allay our concerns and hide a focus on sustainability in Character after all? This concept is explained as “students are professionally honest and socially committed. They make conscious choices, as professionals and (world) citizens, taking into account the consequences of these choices for others and for society”. Although this links to some of the social aspects of sustainability, it does not fully capture the importance of sustainability. We, therefore, would propose to either add a new character to this list or change social responsibility in “students are professionally honest and socially and sustainably committed. They make conscious choices, as professionals and (world) citizens, taking into account the consequences of these choices for others and for a sustainable society”.6 TEP also highlights the importance of philosophy courses in Tilburg’s Bachelor’s programs: “In order to work on character building, academic teaching should have a broader aim than purely the transfer of knowledge of a particular field. This idea goes back to the founding principles of our institution. The central position of the philosophy courses in our Bachelor’s programs remains an important prerequisite”.7 These philosophy courses need to let student question the values and the choices individuals and our society make. Would the time not be right for Tilburg University – as a university that aims at understanding society including its values and choices – to add not only a requirement for philosophy but also sustainability courses for all its programs in an integrated manner? The university plays a fundamental role in how students perceive the world and the important choices and challenges related to this perception. As coined in its 2027 Strategy, the university aims at impacting “the mindset of tomorrow’s leaders […] nourished from a broad sustainability perspective”. Let us do this, not only via the commitment of the proposed mission statement but also through integrating sustainability in educational programs. Preferably taking a holistic approach in which sustainability is considered a general principle that is addressed in a variety of courses from multiple angles, but in any case offering at least one sustainability course to every student.8

Our Osiris study guide search signals that various schools at Tilburg University pay attention to sustainability in their education. But at the very same time, it highlights that sustainability is not yet one of the priorities in Tilburg University’s education. And, for a future-oriented student eager to learn more about sustainability, it is very hard to find suitable courses. A labeling system for sustainability courses and programs can be used so that it is clearly signaled when courses have a focus on sustainability. The University of Gothenburg’s system is only one example that Tilburg University can draw from.9

Sustainable Organizational Structure

The organizational structure should in any case facilitate and reflect the university’s sustainability goals. As we have seen in the various examples of this short essay, there is a large focus on Tilburg University’s physical infrastructure when it comes to sustainability targets. We already mentioned the university’s ambitions for the Green Metric University ranking. In addition, the university has set the ambition to stop using fossil fuels for energy purposes by 2025.10 Like in other universities, over the past few years, its focus has been on academic air travel as an important source of carbon emissions. The 2019-2021 Sustainability Plan recognizes that “scientific personnel, in particular, are frequent flyers in the context of education and research. The size of the associated burden and how it could be reduced will be examined. The primary objective is to reduce the number of journeys. If travel is necessary and alternatives (e.g., video conferencing) cannot be chosen, standard burden compensation may be considered”. Tilburg University took some measures to reduce these carbon emissions, including not allowing its employees to travel by air to destinations within a 500 kilometers but at the same time experience tells us that it remains difficult or even impossible not to fly (but take a train) to destinations further than 500 kilometers with the current contracted travel agency. Probably worthwhile for Tilburg University to review current and future contracts with the travel agency to ensure access to sustainable travel options?

Of course, a sustainable organizational structure is more than net-zero business flights. If the university indeed wants to aim at a higher score in the Green Metric University ranking, even when pursuing box-ticking, it will probably end up with a fairly ‘green’ campus. This is also shown by ambitions formulated in the Ambition Document of 22 June 2022. But we also see other possibilities that perhaps have not yet been considered. Sustainability includes various important aspects, and for example, Tilburg University’s tax experts will immediately point to the importance of sustainable taxation as part of sustainable businesses. As Rutger Bregman rightfully told the elite at Davos in 2019: “1500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we are wrecking the planet. I hear people talking the language of participation and justice, and equality and transparency, but then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I am at a firefighters conference and no one is allowed to speak about water”. Take for example Starbucks. One of our colleagues, professor Hans Gribnau (2017), duly notes that Starbucks claims to show concern for society and to have internalized external interests, viz. the interests of society at large. What Starbucks forgets to mention is that it engages in tax avoidance and evasion. For instance, in March 2022, The Guardian headlined that “Starbucks pays just £5m UK corporation tax on £95m gross profit”. While many students and colleagues on our campus probably enjoy the (fair trade) coffee, what about a small local coffee shop instead? Combined with Books 4 Life, coffee, and books, wouldn’t that sound like a plan? The Books 4 Life shop, that is currently hidden in the basement of the Cobbenhagen building, sells donated second-hand books and all proceeds go to charity and deserves a spotlight location showcasing the values we care about. Other obvious examples would be the procurement of (a predominantly plant-based and local) catering business, a green travel agency, and other facilities.

These are just examples: the bigger picture is important here – as an organization, a Sustainable University needs to make well-considered choices in their business relationships, including its relationship with large financial institutions and investment policies and account for them.11

Our Recommendations

In the previous sections we explored various aspects of a Sustainable University and to what extent Tilburg University meets its ambition to be one. Human activities are the greatest threat to a sustainable world, but at the same time, it is also humankind that has the power to reverse this. The university has an urgent important social function, and therefore bears the responsibility to take a pioneering role, all well beyond a green physical campus and net-zero business trips. We highly support that Tilburg University wants to become a Sustainable University and would like to provide the following recommendations and guiding principles that will hopefully inform and foster its road towards it:

  • Tilburg University’s mission statement should be updated to “Understanding a Sustainable Society”.

  • Choices must be made to focus on specific aspects consistent with the (vocabulary of) broad concept of sustainability that includes all facets of the notion of sustainability. Sustainability research of Tilburg University’s researchers (including TSC) can continuously inform these choices, simultaneously making sustainability research more visible inside and outside the university.

  • In determining those choices and related ambitions and actions at the core of Tilburg University’s societal role as a university, a Sustainability Committee has to be installed that consists of members with a broad range of backgrounds in sustainability, including students, academic and non-academic staff members, and external stakeholders. The Committee should ensure Tilburg University’s consistent and university broad sustainability agenda and should monitor its implementation.

  • Explicitly integrate sustainability in TEP, truly reflecting the Tilburg University’s ambitions to become a Sustainable University. In line with the university’s philosophy courses requirement, a central position for sustainability in education is welcomed.

  • To guide students as “tomorrow’s leaders” a labeling system for sustainability courses and programs can be used so that it is clearly signaled when courses have a focus on sustainability. The University of Gothenburg’s system is only an example that Tilburg University can draw from.

  • Tilburg University’s ambition for the Green Metric University ranking can be supported if it is understood that only a green campus does not make a university sustainable and the experiences of employees and students with the ease and ability to make sustainable choices at the university are taken into account.

  • As a Sustainable University, Tilburg needs to make well-considered choices as regards its business relationships and investments.


Daly, H.E. et al. 1994. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the

Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Beacon Press, 1994)

Gribnau, H. 2017. “The Integrity of the Tax System after BEPS: A Shared Responsibility” Erasmus Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, Available at SSRN:

De Kort, M., Spong, K., and Bastmeijer K., Tilburg University. 2019. Towards a Sustainable University: Tilburg University Sustainability Plan 2019–2021: 3.

Munguia Vega, N.E. 2019. “Sustainable Organizations.” In: Leal Filho W. (eds) Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education. Springer, Cham.

Raworth, K. 2017. Doughnut Economics : Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Velazquez, L., Munuia, N., Platt, A., and Taddei, J. 2006. “Sustainable University: what can be the matter?” Journal of Cleaner Production 14: 810-819.

Waas, T., Verbruggen, A. and Wright, T. 2010. “University research for sustainable development definition and characteristics explored”. Journal of Cleaner Production 18: 629-636.

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