Sustainability reporting and performance management in universities: Challenges and benefits

by Carol A Adams,  published in the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

Abstract This article aims to provide a perspective on sustainability reporting and performance management in the university sector making a case for increased accountability, improved (management of) performance and greater innovation in approach. Carol Adams provides a personal perspective drawing on experience in sustainability standard setting and as a sustainability researcher, advisor and practitioner in the university sector and others.

The article finds that university practice in sustainability reporting and performance management significantly lags other sectors and falls far short of optimising the potential of the sector to influence transformational change through knowledge transfer. Suggestions for further research are made.

This article makes a case for increased sustainability performance management and reporting in universities arguing that it would lead to increased accountability and improved performance. It calls for social, environmental and economic sustainability to be integrated into university processes. The paper has implications for university policy makers and regulators. Little attention has been paid to the university sector in the sustainability reporting and social responsibility literature or indeed in recognised standards for sustainability reporting and management.

Article citation: Adams CA, (2013) Sustainability reporting and performance management in universities: Challenges and benefits, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal 4(3): 384-392. DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/SAMPJ-12-2012-0044

Why should universities manage and report their sustainability performance?

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here ( Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Universities, their graduates and professors are expected to be at the forefront of developments which impact people, planet and organisations. Moreover, universities have a significant influence on future leaders and on teachers and parents of future generations. This influence is not only direct through education, research and knowledge transfer, but also indirect through the example a university sets by managing and being accountable for its sustainability performance.

One might therefore expect that, in taking these responsibilities seriously, universities would be at the forefront of sustainability (reporting) practice. Yet, despite various national initiatives to “green” universities[1], a sector search on[2], and reveals that only a tiny proportion of the world’s universities publish sustainability reports using globally accepted guidelines and frameworks. (Each of these three web sites are recognised repositories for reports which use the UN Global Compact Principles, the Global Reporting Initiative sustainability reporting guidelines and the AA1000 Standards[3]. As such, reporters that use one or more of these globally recognised frameworks tend to include their reports in one or more of these databases).

A review of strategic planning documents on university web sites revealed that few pay more than lip service to material sustainability challenges, issues or risks and that sustainability-specific plans tended to give undue attention to operational sustainability impacts which are trivial relative to the impact of universities on sustainability through education, research and community engagement. The review was conducted as background work in developing a sustainability vision, goals and strategy for a university I was employed at to lead sustainability initiatives and integrate and embed sustainability initiatives across operations, curriculum and research. The review encompassed universities from around the world which produced a sustainability report using a globally recognised framework and other universities identified as being best practice from ranking and rating systems such as the People and Planet Green League table in the UK and the North American College Sustainability Report Card[5].

This omission from strategic planning does not necessarily reflect inaction. For example, work led by Professor Geoff Scott at the University of Western Sydney revealed fairly extensive, albeit unlinked and unsystematic activity in incorporating sustainability into the curriculum of Australian universities (

Given the importance of the reporting process in developing data collection systems and in performance management (for example through collaborative approaches to developing key performance indicators, setting targets, determining actions to achieve targets, engaging stakeholders and reviewing performance), this low level of sustainability planning and reporting reflects and contributes to continued poor management of sustainability in universities. Practitioners of sustainability reporting know only too well that: what gets reported, gets measured; what is not measured, is not managed; and if you are not managing sustainability performance it is difficult to improve it, or know whether it has improved.

Whilst many universities are experimenting with the odd “green” building; a sustainability course here and there; or, focussing on a particular issue, such as under representation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, few are taking the whole-of-institution approach generally considered best practice (Australian Government, 2009; La Trobe University, 2011, 2012 [6]; Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2012; Scott et al., 2012; Universität Graz, 2012). This lack of a whole-of-institution approach is also apparent from the lack of an identified responsibility for sustainability at the senior level in university organisation charts.

The current state of university sustainability reporting

It is reasonable to expect that organisations without shareholder investors might take a longer term approach to measuring success and thus pay more attention to managing issues impacting on longer term performance as is the case with many sustainability issues (Adams and McNicholas, 2007). Research has also long indicated that organisations which require a social licence to operate are more at pains to report on their sustainability performance, particularly their credentials (Hackston and Milne, 1996; Adams et al., 1998; Patten, 1992). The sorry state of accountability for sustainability performance in universities (as evidenced by the small proportion of universities using globally recognised reporting frameworks – see discussion above) is thus difficult to understand, although there are perhaps a number of factors at play beyond those identified in other sectors by Adams (2002):

  • unimaginative leadership and leadership teams dominated by white, male, aging academics (there is considerable literature on the benefits of gender diversity on a broader organisational focus and in developing a more collaborative style as is required for sustainability initiatives);
  • siloed thinking and funding across both functions and disciplines, encouraged both by the way universities tend to organise into academic disciplines and by adherence to rigid or traditional norms about what constitutes an appropriate university structure and focus;
  • territorialism and leadership styles which are not compatible with the collaboration required to integrate and embed sustainability (Adams et al., 2011; Scott et al., 2012);
  • mandatory reporting requirements for universities which often focus on trivial issues rather than the bigger picture or on material impacts and which have, in many countries, not yet been adapted to incorporate sustainability issues;
  • a lack of focus on the business case (such as: concerns of future students and those that will employ them; cost savings through the adoption of carbon management and energy reduction plans; increase in staff satisfaction and the ability to attract good staff, particularly those in non-academic roles);
  • limited push from sector associations, trade unions and student groups; and
  • little conception of what a best practice university in sustainability might look like.

In many cases the charge for sustainability (performance measurement) is led by students, the facilities management team or academics rather than as a strategic direction led by senior management. Whilst these are essential and important influences in their own right, support of the university President/Vice-Chancellor, proactive senior leadership and a whole-of-institution approach is essential for such grass roots initiatives to have influence and reach. All too often Vice-Chancellor’s are occupied by the issue of the day and the stakeholders who are potential drivers for a focus on sustainability are quietly talking amongst themselves amid trying to cope with challenging and ever more complex workloads.

The most comprehensive collection of university sustainability reports are:

At the time of writing a total of 14 universities from around the world are identified on as having ever produced a GRI report; four as having produced a UN Global Compact Communication on Progress; and one as having used the AA1000AS assurance standard. Whilst the database is likely to be incomplete and does not, for example, include the excellent German language sustainability reports produced by the University of Graz (Universität Graz, 2012), this is a woefully miniscule proportion of the world’s universities. Further, only a small proportion of the sustainability reports were externally assured including La Trobe University’s 2010 report Responsible Futures which won best first time sustainability report in the global awards in 2011 and the 2011 report Creating Futures which was ranked fifth best overall report in the global awards. It is clear from the short-, medium- and long-term targets set in these reports and the actions agreed and publicly disclosed to achieve them, that the process of preparing them has been a catalyst for change. This indicates that the significant transformative role of the sector is not yet being realised and the senior leadership necessary to achieve this whole-of-institution approach is not yet in place. And if ever there was a sector that has both a significant transformative role and a level of sustainability performance that needs to be transformed, it is the university sector. Sustaining the change process requires continuing senior university leadership and a whole-of-institution approach.

Examples of real innovation and transformation in the practice of embedding sustainability in education and research in these reports are few and far between. One of the best, with a focus on multi-disciplinarity and application is the Leuphana Universität in Lüneberg as reflected in its 2011 German language sustainability report (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2012).

Determining materiality and using guidelines

Uniquely the university sector’s “green” initiatives (it is lagging other sectors in moving away from a focus on environment to recognising broader sustainability issues and their interconnections) have ignored global, cross-sectoral, multi-sector developments in accountability for sustainability performance. In turn those global, cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder initiatives have not addressed the material impacts and specific issues of the university sector. As a result there has been limited experienced input, built on best practice, into the determination of material sustainability impacts for the sector, or on how to measure them. A sector specific case in point is the UI Green Metric World Ranking[7] some of the measures in which are difficult to interpret, subjective and cannot be validated and because of this will not lead to performance improvements. For example, one measure used is: “number of courses related to environment and sustainability”. Determining whether courses relate to environment and sustainability is subjective (it depends on your understanding of sustainability), but more concerning, the measure does not incorporate any sense of the extent to which sustainability subject matter is covered in a course or of learning outcomes.

Whilst the distinctive context, peculiarities and impacts of the university sector have not been recognised in some global, cross-sectoral developments, the United Nations Global Compact has specifically addressed them with the publication in 2012 of A Practical Guide to the United Nations Global Compact for Higher Education Institutions and plans to make the Communication on Progress in implementing the principles binding on all university signatories to the UN Global Compact, just as they are for companies. (The UN Principles of Management Education also address the issue of embedding sustainability into education – albeit focussed only on business schools).

However, none of these general international frameworks provide guidance on how to measure the embeddedness of sustainability in education, research and their community engagement activities or the quality of their outcomes. They are thus silent on the sectors’ material sustainability impacts. This drawback applies to using the key performance indicators in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G3.1 guidelines, in that it is possible for a university to achieve an A+ application level certificate without reporting on sustainability in education and research[8]. This was addressed at La Trobe University (La Trobe University, 2011, 2012) by following the AA1000APS Standard (AccountAbility, 2008) though the challenges of measuring the extent of embeddedness of sustainability in education and research and the impact of those intended to benefit remain. The GRI guidelines are, however, an excellent framework for evaluating sustainability in university operations and their global prominence and wide acceptance smooths the way in making a case, in the face of opposition, for inclusion of particular measures in a sustainability report.

A framework for managing sustainability in universities

Whilst there can be no “one size fits all” approach to managing sustainability in universities, knowledge of best practice sustainability management in other sectors combined with knowledge of the university sector leads to the identification of important features of a framework for managing sustainability (Table I).

As Table I illustrates, a sustainability report is the outcome of a collaborative processes which is critical to sustainability transformation. The fact that the report itself is publicly available ensures that the targets, actions set and areas of identified poor performance get attention. Reporting poor performance does not pose a risk, provided steps taken to improve it are identified. In fact, this process builds trust. Sustainability ranking and rating systems do not have these benefits and have been criticised by university presidents for using inappropriate weightings and measures and for encouraging undesirable behaviours. By preparing its own report a university and its stakeholders can decide what is important to them.

Further research

Reporting challenges for universities which further research could address include measures of the formal and informal learning by students for sustainability (leadership) relevant to their future careers. In addition to knowledge, this would need to include consideration of the development of skills required by sustainability leaders in the workforce (Adams et al., 2011; Scott et al., 2012). In relation to knowledge development and transfer, assessment of performance would need to consider the extent to which multi-disciplinary research was facilitated and encouraged (Adams, 2010; Gray, 2010) and applied research, capable of making a difference and transforming current practices and thinking measured and rewarded. These are significant challenges in a context where many universities are organised in discipline based silos and national assessment of research pays little attention to its usefulness and impact (and I am not referring here to number of citations in journals which themselves have little practical impact).

Critical to the development of a report which addresses sustainability issues is a sound governance and management structure for sustainability. Universities have not been innovative in this regard sticking to tried and tested senior management structures which will not work for transformative and sustained change on an issue which requires collaboration and cross functional working. Research which further explores solutions to this conundrum, particularly in the context of university leadership styles and cultures, would be valuable.

The transformational change required to address contemporary social, environmental and economic sustainability issues requires doing things differently and doing different things – particularly in universities.

Give the role of universities for the public good, there is a case for mandatory reporting by universities on key sustainability issues (Adams and Frost, 2007) and research could examine the current extent of this across the globe, aspects that might be included in mandatory reporting requirements and the feasibility of introducing them in different national contexts.

Table I A framework for managing sustainability in universities

Elements of managing sustainability in universities

  • Essential elements

Visible support of the President/Vice-Chancellor and the governing body.

Pro-active senior leadership to facilitate/drive (a) change, make connections (b), develop know-how, inspire and empower others and keep sustainability on the agenda through a collaborative approach.

The senior person responsible for sustainability is empowered to lead and is anointed as the leader by the President/VC.

Collaborative approach across senior leaders.

Mechanisms and fora for staff and students to get involved, develop campaigns and contribute ideas.

A clear and consistent communication strategy which encompasses social media and where “greenwash” has no place.

Reference to sustainability in job descriptions, selection criteria and performance goals.

Inclusion of sustainability in overall university strategy and plans and a clear expectation that it will be included in functional and faculty plans.

Mechanisms to facilitate multi-disciplinary research and course development.

Celebration of successes.

  • Desirable additional elements

An advisory board of external expertse who will inspire confidence in the credibility of the approach.

New/revised policies to incorporate sustainability (for example in purchasing and travel policies.)

A carbon management and energy reduction plan.

A stakeholder engagement strategy & sustainability communications plan (f)

Alignment with the existing national quality frameworks specific to the university sector.

  • Common features of universities to minimise

Territorialism and siloed thinking.

Bullying and white anting.

The tendency for senior management teams to be dominated by aging white men sometimes with poor leadership skills.

A lack of innovation and a low appetite for risk and change.

Features of the reporting process

Identification of key stakeholders to involve in the various stages of this process (c).

Development of a shared vision, goals and principles which incorporate sustainability.

Use of one or more globally recognised reporting frameworks (d).

Identification of material social and environmental sustainability and community impacts.

A collaborative approach to determining key performance indicators for material impacts.

A collaborative approach to determining quantified targets and actions to achieve them (both of which are included in operational plans and individual performance goals).

Regular monitoring of performance against actions and targets.

Notes to Table 1: a)As appropriate for the issue/circumstances; b) for example, across operations and curriculum allowing the campus to be used as a “living laboratory”, and between social and environmental issues; c) AccountAbility (2005, 2006); d) such as the UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines, AccountAbility’s AA1000 Standards; e) this might include alumni and adjunct professors; f) following the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard (AccountAbility, 2011)

Notes to the article

[1]. See, for example, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and their Green Gown Awards; People and Planet’s Green League Table; the College Sustainability Report Card

[2]. All web sites referenced in this paper were accessed most recently on 22 February 2013 unless otherwise stated.

[3]. The author is on the Global Reporting Initiative’s Stakeholder Council, the AA1000 Standards Board and was a member of the working group that developed the UN Global Compact’s (2012) A Practical Guide to the United Nations Global Compact for Higher Education Institutions.



[6]. The author is former Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at La Trobe University.


[8]. At the time of writing (late 2012) this is an issue under consideration in the currently ongoing development of the GRI’s G4 guidelines.


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Patten, D.M. (1992), “Intra-industry environmental disclosures in response to the Alaskan oil spill: a note on legitimacy theory”, Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol. 17 No.5, pp.471-475.

Scott, G., Tilbury, D., Sharp, L., Deane, E. (2012), Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education Institutions, Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Sydney.

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Universität Graz (2012), Nachhaltigskeitbericht, 2011/2012, Universität Graz, Graz.

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here ( Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.


The author is grateful to the co-editors of this special issue, Geoff Scott, Clemens Mader and Dzul Razak and to the anonymous reviewers.

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About the author

Carol A. Adams is a consultant and Professor at the Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University. She is also Visiting Professor of accounting at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow and Research Fellow, Centre for Sustainability Management, Leuphana Universität. She is a member of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Stakeholder Council and the AA1000 Standards Board. She was on the working group that developed the United Nations Global Compact A Practical Guide to the United Nations Global Compact for Higher Education Institutions. She was previously Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at La Trobe University where she was responsible for leading the integration and embedding of sustainability across operations, curriculum and research. She oversaw the development of the award winning sustainability governance, management and reporting processes and led the development of the 2010 and 2011 sustainability reports, Responsible Futures and Creating Futures. She is Founding Editor of the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal.

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