Dave Gorman reflects on his first four years as Director of the Department for Social Responsibility & Sustainability.
“Social and sustainable action transforms lives. Universities like Edinburgh are well placed to make a difference. We’re on an exciting journey – and we need your help.”
I am reminded daily that we as humans face a series of giant, interlocking and pressing challenges: from global poverty to rising inequality, to the scourge of slavery to the impacts already being felt of climate change. Universities in my view have an enormous opportunity in this space- to take a longer view, to deploy knowledge and expertise in the service of a better world, to equip our young people with a full and rounded view of the world, and to use our scale, reputation and reach to make lasting change.
It is now four years since I was given the privilege to take on responsibility for leading our University’s response to social responsibility and sustainability – what we call ‘SRS’ themes for short.
I was reminded of this anniversary by a LinkedIn notification but also by a recent conference I attended at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The conference was organised by the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) and is an excellent opportunity to get together with counterparts from around the world, this year in the fabulous settings of the University of British Colombia.
So, after 4 years, and with the Canadian Rockies fresh in my mind, what do I think we have achieved, and where are we headed?
I want to make five points.
- We’re now much clearer about what SRS is and why it matters
As a new department in 2013, building on a great foundation but with a new task, it took us and the University more generally, some time to work out what we actually meant by SRS issues and why they mattered. Too often these issues can be treated as nice to haves or nice to dos, but I hope we’re showing why they are in reality core to how a modern, global, successful and responsible university needs to act.
From tackling the alarming impacts of climate change, to doing what we can to make our investments both socially and environmentally responsible, to avoiding funding warlords in the Congo or human rights abuses in our supply chains, to meeting our student and staff expectations for a responsible and ethical approach, to engaging more effectively with our local communities, to thinking about what it means to be a fair employer, we have a weighty set of issues and challenges to consider. It helps of course, that often good environmental or sustainability practice is just good practice- from re-using PCs to reducing waste and landfilling, from designing more efficient labs and buildings to identifying ways to save carbon, energy and money, to taking a proactive approach to identifying and managing supply chain risks, these are positive ways to show why these issues matter.
2. We’re making progress, but we have much more to do
Working closely with colleagues across the entire University- estates, finance, procurement, accommodation services, labs managers, teachers and researchers, communications staff and servitors and many more- the University has been steadily building a reputation for ‘doing’ SRS well, evidenced by a number of awards and prizes over the last 4 years, but also by the increasing interest in and engagement with these issues, inside and outside the University. Of course, we couldn’t have made such progress without the interest, support and challenge from our student leaders and student body. We may not always agree, but in our University the views and opinions of our students are crucial and we have certainly benefitted from working closely with the Students Association over the last 4 years. I would also say we are fortunate to have the strong backing of our senior leaders, whilst I benefit every day from a highly committed and engaged staff.
But when I go to ISCN conferences, and hear what Universities such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, UBC and KTH are doing, it reminds me that we are really just at the start of our journey….
3. We really can make a difference
We are lucky to try and tackle these issues at a University with a global reputation and reach and an unprecedented range of teaching and research interests, backed up with a scale that only the largest organisations can match. Taken together our staff and student community is 50,000, making us the 7th largest city in Scotland if you think of it that way, and we will soon be a £1 billion a year turnover organisation, with the 3rd largest University endowment in the UK and an annual spend of £250 million on goods and services. That scale, reputation and scope matters, because the range of issues we face is very wide- so being able to try something, learn from it, improve it and expand it, then share it with others gives us an opportunity- a chance to change things for the better- improving working conditions, life opportunities and our natural environment, and doing so in a meaningful way.
If that sounds a touch overdone, I’d encourage you to read some of the things our University is doing or has done- from CCS research and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation and the FloWave tank to the innovative online MOOC on sustainable development, from our modern slavery and conflict minerals statements to our new policy on responsible investment, from our commitment to be ‘zero by 2040’ to our life-changing activities on widening participation for less privileged young people. Not forgetting, of course, world leading research on global poverty and health issues, on new renewables technologies and ways to encourage peace and cooperation.
4. But we can’t do it alone…
An obvious, but crucial point: in such a large organisation with so many processes, buildings and activities, and with such astonishing experience and commitment right on our doorsteps, we’d be foolish as an SRS department to try and ‘do SRS’ on our own. That approach has never been on the agenda however and we’ve made it a core value that ‘working with others is how we do our business’. I like to think we are always looking to improve and to change where necessary and to listen and learn and be willing to innovate and experiment. Working with our staff, students and alumni brings such a rich and diverse conversation, though expectations are high, opinions can be strongly held and what to prioritise isn’t always clear!
Just as importantly, we seek to work closely with outside organisations- working with local people and community groups, trying to assist the Scottish Government deliver its policies, seeking alliances with others in the sector and around the world, building up our corporate and business connections, and making sure we are well informed about coming changes, technologies and seeking funding where we can to allow even larger change to occur.
5. It isn’t always easy but it is worth it
I don’t always enjoy my job- is that heresy to admit? Even when we’re facing a string of new successes and opportunities, and especially when we face set-backs and the challenges of making change, it can seem hard work and exhausting at times.
But of course, what I have learned down the years is that change can be difficult to make, and that you need a certain persistence and willingness to keep going. At such times, I am reminded that John F Kennedy said he was seeking to do things not because they were easy, but because they were hard. I certainly don’t claim to be JFK but I am inspired by his message and that of others who show how change can happen.
Universities in my view have an enormous opportunity – to take a longer view, to deploy knowledge and expertise in the service of a better world, to equip our young people with a full and rounded view of the world, and to use our scale and reputation and reach to reach out and make lasting change. And that seems to me a prize worth striving for.
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