The significant sustainability issues of our day present some of the greatest challenges for the next generation. Indeed, the world that our next generation will inherit and live in will be far different from the one we live in today.

Ecosystem changes resulting from climate change, water scarcity, ocean acidification, ecosystem destruction, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and more (all part of what is called the “Anthropocene”), coupled with social changes in the form of income inequality, human rights abuses, and environmental injustice require new ways of conceptualizing and organizing academic research, teaching, and engagement.

The traditional domain for many universities to address sustainability lies within schools of the environment, which were formed in the early 1900s to focus on issues such as forestry, fisheries, and resource management.

This structure, however, may be insufficient to the challenge at hand. Instead, sustainability education and research, especially in research-intensive universities, is finding a welcome home across the campus, in schools of business, architecture, public policy, public health, engineering, law, and many more.

This reality creates new challenges for internal coordination and focus, as well as for building external partnerships, fund raising, and engagement.

In response, universities are experimenting with new types of organizational centers and institutes that are intended to make the sum of the diverse activities greater than the individual parts.

While the institutes in this study are focused on sustainability, the information and lessons presented could be applicable to any topical institute that seeks to link the multiple disciplines of a university campus into a common endeavor.

5 Keys to Successful Cross-Curricular Sustainability Studies

The University of Michigan released a report on June 1, 2017—Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities: Innovations in Cross-Campus and Cross-Disciplinary Models—that examines this new form of cross-disciplinary sustainability institute, exploring their distinctive characteristics, activities, challenges and opportunities.

(Next page: 5 broad keys to successful cross-curricular sustainability studies)

About the Author:

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan; a position that holds an appointment in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. Andy also serves as Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. For more information, follow Andy on Twitter @HoffmanAndy.

Jessica L. Axson is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Ault Research Group in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, within the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She was also awarded a Dow Sustainability Fellowship. For more information, follow Jessica on Twitter @JessAxson.