How universities understand sustainability and its implications for action

Tracy Harvey Presenter
Doctoral candidate
University of Wisconsin-Madison
On-Demand Lightning Talk 


The integration of sustainability across Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has produced an emerging field around defining sustainability. Despite the increase in universities transitioning towards more sustainable institutions, and the importance of this initial defining process, little research has examined how universities define what sustainability means to their campuses. Without a unified intra-campus understanding, the actions taken to become more sustainable may diverge across departments, delay change, and create more obstacles. Further, campuses that do formally define sustainability may resort to using a generic and vague definition without much discussion as to how it may relate to their institution's own goals, mission, and values.

This presentation will provide an overview of how HEIs that have submitted a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) report formally define sustainability, as reported within the PA-2: Sustainability Planning credit. A total of 168 definitions of sustainability were analyzed through thematic coding methodology and the results will be presented in this session. A discussion on the implications for action and how to best connect sustainability to the mission and goals of the institution will follow.

Primary Topic Area

Coordination & Planning

Session Level

Introductory Level

Intended Audience

Businesses and Community
Graduate Students or Above
Sustainability Staff
Undergraduate Students