Envisioning helps promote sustainability in academia: A case study at the University of Vermont

Noah Pollock, Eileen Horn, Robert Costanza, Matt Sayre

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Purpose: Universities are increasingly aspiring to be both models and catalysts of change, leading the world to a more sustainable and desirable future. Yet complex and ineffective governance, traditional disciplinary boundaries, and the lack of a shared vision at academic institutions often hinder progress toward this goal. The purpose of this paper is to describe an approach to envisioning and engagement used by the University of Vermont (UVM) to overcome these barriers, and in the process, continue the university's progress toward leadership in systems thinking, ecological design, and sustainability. Design/methodology/approach: The envisioning and engagement process involved 1,500 participants from the UVM campus and Burlington community. Participants' visions of a sustainable and desirable university are gathered through two community events and three online surveys. Their responses are analyzed using a modified Q methodology, a survey method in which participants direct the formation of survey categories. Theresults of the analysis lead to the formation ofa visionnarrative, a sustainability charter, and guide the creation of a range of initiatives. Findings: The results of these efforts suggest that when provided with ample and well-structured opportunities, university community members will become active participants in initiatives aimed at fostering institutional change. By focusing on shared values and long-term goals, envisioning exercises can achieve a surprising amount of consensus while avoiding the divisiveness and polarization that often plague open-ended discussions and university governance. Originality/value: While envisioning exercises are sometimes conducted by local governments, institutions of higher education still rely predominantly on more traditional and hierarchical methods of planning. The innovative process outlined in this paper for adapting Q methodology for community envisioning appears to be an effective method of eliciting participants' visions and establishing broad-based support for actions that promote sustainability planning and education.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)343-353
    JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


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