‘Sustainability must be fully integrated into education and research at Tilburg University’

‘Sustainability must be fully integrated into education and research at Tilburg University’

Tilburg University is uniquely positioned to embrace the challenge of sustainability, but it’s not doing enough, says Tilburg Young Academy in this open letter. What would truly make the university one of the most sustainable in the world?

Beeld: Jack Tummers

Tilburg University aspires to become one of the top 10 sustainable universities worldwide, an ambition put forward in its Strategic Plan, echoed by the dean of Tilburg Law School (prof. Vervaeke) in June. In an interview published on Tilburg University’s website, Vervaeke explains that sustainability problems require an interdisciplinary approach, in which we actively involve the outside world in our environment. This aligns with Tilburg University’s overarching goal of being a socially engaged institution.

The interview with Professor Vervaeke underscores that Tilburg University is not merely meeting the legal obligations concerning sustainability; rather, our university aims to be a ’trailblazer’ by going above and beyond expectations. Two examples are provided that should signal Tilburg University’s ambition: sustainable and healthy food on campus, and a sustainable policy for travel expense claims, both for travel to and from work and business trips, with a restriction that journeys shorter than 500 km should be undertaken by train.

These very examples are also highlighted in Tilburg University’s 2027 strategy titled Weaving Minds & Characters. This 2027 Strategy also states the objective of securing a top 10 position in the UI GreenMetric University ranking.

As a leading research-led institution specializing in the study of human behavior and its societal implications, Tilburg University is uniquely positioned to embrace the challenge of sustainability. We fully encourage our university to embrace this important role and wholeheartedly support its endeavors to become one of the most sustainable universities worldwide.

But we also see much room for improvement: the omnipresent smell of large hamburgers dominating the recent Hello Summer Festival has not yet completely been washed out of our summer clothes. We would like to be pro-active and offer our help in achieving the university’s goal. But, as good scientists do, we first would like to set a proper definition of what a sustainable university is.

Securing a place in the top 10 of an international ranking, such as the Green Metrics University ranking (which primarily assesses a university’s green campus initiatives), should not be a goal in itself. So what would truly make Tilburg University one of the most sustainable universities in the world?

What is a Sustainable University?

Scholars have been researching what makes a university a sustainable organization. A sustainable organization could be described as an organization that follows or is committed to advancing the principles of sustainable development. For a university, this would mean not only including its organizational structure, but also covering its core pillars in the sustainability commitments: education and research.

A sustainable university should:

* Articulate a sustainability vision and mission.
* Establish an inclusive sustainability committee that interfaces with the Executive Board.
* Develop and implement sustainability strategies.

For Tilburg University to embody the ideals of a sustainable university, sustainability must be fully integrated into education and research, leveraging its expertise in understanding human behavior and its societal implications.

A Dangerous Route

Recent developments are quite worrying. Whereas Tilburg University had a dedicated Sustainability Program Team and a Tilburg Sustainability Plan for 2019-2021, with the 2027 Strategy, the Sustainability Program Team has been disbanded, and the sustainability officer is now part of Tilburg University’s Facility Services Division, lacking a direct organizational connection to the Executive Board.

Tilburg University considers sustainability to be an integral part of its 2027 Strategy, rendering a separate program and committee unnecessary. However, we caution against this dangerous route as sustainability is a complex issue with long-term objectives that is often and quickly side-tracked for (non-sustainable) short-term goals.

For instance, last spring semester, Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO of Shell, was invited to our university’s global leadership event, where he was positioned as a role model. Of course, the invitation of Van der Veer himself is not problematic, as there should be room for an open debate. We believe that actively facilitating a dialogue is an important part of the road to a more sustainable society.

However, the event focused on leadership and role models without adequately addressing the social responsibility of companies like Shell. This is not about educating our students, but about a lack of policy. It is essential for Tilburg University to consider implementing guidelines for those with privileged access to campus, including the student and faculty bodies. These guidelines should form part of a comprehensive sustainability policy.

Truly Becoming a Sustainable University 

It seems that Tilburg University’s current organizational structure is lacking the ability to tackle sustainability issues. If Tilburg University genuinely desires to be counted among the top ten most sustainable universities globally, it must adopt a clear and cohesive sustainability policy that is fully integrated into its identity, activities, and operations. This policy should establish a robust sustainability framework led by a dedicated sustainability program leader equipped with the necessary resources to guide the university towards its sustainability goals.

We urge for the establishment of an independent sustainability committee that includes stakeholders from various perspectives. This committee must have one main goal; making the university more sustainable. It should collaborate closely with the sustainability program leader and provide binding advice to the Executive Board. Additionally, transparent communication regarding sustainability efforts should be prominently featured on the university’s website.

Being part of Tilburg University, we would like to be proud of our university’s commitment to sustainability. Therefore, we recommend the Executive Board to leverage the expertise of its academic and support staff, as well as its relationships with external stakeholders, and establish a diverse sustainability committee, which might advise perhaps to adopt at least one sustainability course in all bachelor’s programs or implement only vegetarian food options on campus, demonstrating Tilburg’s commitment to truly ‘sticking its neck out’ in the pursuit of sustainability.

In short, it is time to walk the walk, instead of only talking the talk.

The Tilburg Young Academy consists of early career academics from the University’s various Schools.

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