The issue of sustainability is becoming increasingly prominent at our university, largely reflected by the rise in student involvement in the OccupyEUR protests and last year’s petition from the Erasmus Sustainability Hub (ESH).
From the institutional side, the Board published an emergency climate and ecological declaration, and announced the organisation of fourteen university-wide sustainability dialogues coordinated by the Design, Impact, Transitions (DIT) platform and ESH, with which the three of us are affiliated. The main takeaway from this is that the university wants to involve the entire EUR community in its sustainability transition, and use the dialogues as direct input for changes in policy and across faculties.
While we appear to be taking steps in the right direction, a recurring issue is the lack of clarity and transparency surrounding EUR’s sustainability goals. In announcing the Dialogues, the EB revisited some ambitions, but many were not elaborated upon. The university did not communicate any visible progress on the inventory of its ties with the fossil industry, which is arguably our biggest concern, in the three months between the declaration and the statement.
Our university has declared the current situation to be an emergency and wants to involve all its stakeholders in its sustainability transition, but for now our community has mostly received a long list of ambitions and vague commitments. Even after the EB’s statement, we have not seen visible and urgent efforts to enact structural changes across departments to be net-positive by 2030.
However, honest communication regarding their ambitions and ongoing progress is exactly what is needed for the EUR community to truly understand what the university is doing and how its sustainability transition is progressing. When we raise the issue of transparency, which would be expected from a public institution, the EB often blames confusing and uncoordinated communication channels for the apparent lack of progress. Their argument is that they are doing a lot, but they are doing a poor job of communicating this to the EUR community.
While it’s certainly true that there are issues with EUR’s communication strategy around sustainability issues, we believe the problem runs deeper than that. Fundamentally, despite the strong rhetoric, sustainability remains a secondary strategic priority, both at the Central level, and at the different faculties.
Progress on sustainability at EUR is mainly driven by self-driven initiatives from individuals such as ESH and the Sustainability Liaison Network. Moreover, the DIT platform, a hub for academics and programmes involved with sustainability transitions, does not have a permanent status yet as a strategic initiative by EUR, and is struggling to integrate all stakeholders on campus, such as sustainability teachers, student groups and researchers.
Thus, while it’s true that these initiatives are doing interesting work, the lack of centralisation makes it harder to communicate, collaborate and make progress at the scale and pace needed to meet the university’s strategic goal of net-positive by 2030.
The missing link here is structural commitment from the EB towards long-term sustainability embedded in every part of the university. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to come up with a strategy that works, since this has already been rolled out successfully for diversity and inclusion. Empowered by a permanent office, a substantial budget, autonomy and influence, the D&I Office (now IDEA Centre) has radically changed our diversity landscape over the past five years. We went from being bottom of the table for number of female professors in the Netherlands, to meeting the goal of 25 percent female professors three years ahead of schedule. This shows what can be done when EUR puts its money where its mouth is. It’s clear that moving forward with sustainability issues will require this kind of serious engagement.
Our responsibility to current and future generations underscores the urgency of making such decisions. However, success of these initiatives depends on strong structural commitments from the EB and our Deans. Creating a Sustainability Office with a broad mandate, similar to the IDEA Centre, would be a pivotal step in institutionalising this commitment.
In fact, the University Council urged the EB to create this Office in 2020 and again in 2021. The Office, backed by a dedicated team and resources, would be instrumental in driving sustainability initiatives, improving clarity and consistency in communication, and ensuring long-term strategic commitment to sustainability.
Crucially, the university needs to address the contradictions within its sustainability strategy. Our university’s continued ties with fossil fuel companies such as Shell, which lied to the public for over 50 years and still refuses to recognise the 1.5 – 2C target of the Paris Climate Accord, harm our aspirations and credibility. We must now signal a decisive shift from discourse to action, following the example set by VU Amsterdam.
The upcoming Sustainability Dialogues at EUR, which the three of us are involved in organising, are not just conversations; they have the potential to ignite exactly these kinds of transformative changes. Based on a principle of transparency, everyone at EUR is invited to participate. Dialogues offer an opportunity to critically evaluate and reorient EUR’s relationship with the fossil industry.
During our Climate & Ecology Summit organised at the end of the Dialogues, we will share the progress we’ve made with the national and international community. Given our involvement in organising the Dialogues, we can reassure the EUR community that this will be a genuinely school-led effort, with the intention to propose transformative policy proposals, and not, as has recently been suggested, an EB-led initiative to produce anti-political ‘guidelines’. Students and staff can participate by contacting DIT and ESH via [email protected].
As our university embarks on this journey, it is essential that every stakeholder – students, staff, and leadership – is engaged and committed to making this vision a reality, and that’s why we need to come together around the table now. This transformation, underpinned by openness and inclusivity, determines whether we can secure a liveable future for all.