“Universities that ignore sustainability will be left behind”The Global Head of Sustainability at IE University, Isabela del Alcázar, believes that higher education institutions should incorporate environmental, social and governance issues in a cross-disciplinary way, and that the whole community should be familiar with these concepts in order to apply them
Photo: Global Head of Sustainability at IE University, Isabela del Alcázar. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee
By Jose Manuel Blanco
IE University’s sustainability slogan is “You start the chain of change”. This is emphasized by Isabela del Alcázar, IE University’s Global Head of Sustainability. In recent years, the center has signed agreements with NGOs and international institutions to develop sustainability programs. At the same time, it has included content on this topic in students’ academic programs and has spread the concept to the rest of the university community. All this is completed with a decade-long program to create an educational community aware of today’s social and corporate needs.
With this wealth of knowledge, Del Alcázar warns that universities cannot fall behind in promoting sustainability. At the same time, she believes that everyone should be aware that, from their perspective, they can contribute to building a more sustainable world.
The UN Climate Change Conference COP 26 will be held in Glasgow (United Kingdom) from October 31 to November 12. What pledges do you expect to see?
From an intentions point of view, it is important to have these highly significant meetings where countries with very different levels of development and objectives come together, because climate change is a global issue. But [these intentions] must be translated into effective measures from a regulatory point of view: we know that the intention of different sectors is always to contribute to a better world, but this has to be translated into very high investments. Therefore, a regulatory push is always conducive to change.
The law on measures against climate change in Andalusia (Spain) states that the region’s universities “will incorporate, in the curriculum of official undergraduate and graduate degrees, content on the causes and effects of climate change, as well as the measures that can be adopted for mitigation and adaptation”. Other autonomous communities in the country foresee similar measures. Is IE University considering this type of content in its programs or does it plan to do so?
We have been introducing sustainability content for many years. In 2019, when we first collected the data, we were teaching 1,800 hours of sustainability-related topics, not just climate change, but in a broader sense. Now, we teach 10 times more hours. We understand sustainability as the impact of organizations on people and the environment, and also as a regulatory framework for operating the rules of the game, which is governance, ESG [criteria].
One of our main areas of action is to introduce more and more content into the programs every year. There will be people who want to specialize, but we work a lot on what I call the fine rain: that everyone knows that what sustainability is and that, if the [academic and non-academic] staff know what it is, they will understand the importance of integrating it into day-to-day classes and operations.
At the end of 2020, UN Climate Change presented a partnership program with universities to fill the knowledge gap on the climate emergency in order to encourage people to take action. Is IE University working with national or international agencies to raise public awareness of the climate emergency in the educational community?
We have joined forces with the NGO ActionAid to work on the European project 1Planet4All to train and raise awareness on the importance of climate change among students. We have an alliance with the UN Staff College to launch a Master’s Degree in International Development, which addresses and analyzes the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This program is very successful and growing at a rapid pace. We believe it is essential to find partners of all kinds, with a global vision to impart this knowledge.
How are members of the university community (professors, students, administrative and technical staff) involved in the learning of sustainability?
We felt it was important to ground the SDGs and use education as a tool to transform mindsets. First, to raise awareness; and then, to give people tools which teach them how they can tackle these challenges through the academic content that we provide, each at their own level, and ground the objectives.
Our strategy focuses on how education provides knowledge to make informed decisions. We are confident that we can make that cultural and mindset transformation (we call it the sustainable mindset), that you can go down path A and path B and know the consequences of each one, all through education and research.
Have you been inspired by other universities to develop this strategy?
It is always helpful to draw inspiration from other universities to seek development and innovation in your strategy to drive new solutions. So, when we defined what we were going to do and how, we analyzed what other international universities were doing. We also evaluated our own actions and defined our strategy from 2020 to 2030. Every organization is unique, has its own values and objectives, but it must always be different. It is certainly important to know and learn from other institutions and companies around the world and to go one step further and keep innovating to offer new solutions to the market and society that contribute to creating a better world.
IE University plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions, with reduced use of plastic, non-reusable water bottles, paper and energy. What stage are you at right now?
This year, the energy we buy will be 100% renewable. We are gradually working on lowering each of the different metrics, with the goal of reaching net zero. We are also measuring paper consumption: in 2019 we bought 38,000 kilos; in 2020, 20,000 kilos; and this year we bought 600 kilos. We believe that by 2030 we will have found a way to be close to 10 kilos.
We don’t want to be categorical: for example, architecture students need to print. What you need in paper you compensate with tree plantations. For example, I believe that technology will allow us to develop carbon capture machinery and transform that CO2 into a solid product that can be used for other things.
Your 10 Year Challenge campaign runs an annual project from 2020 to 2030 that promotes sustainability. What is the one for 2021 and what are you working on for 2022?
This year we wanted to work on the generation of a strong, solid, and value-driven community that generates a positive local impact. There must be environmental and social challenges, because otherwise our students and staff will think that sustainability is only about the environment. And part of this challenge is to educate and teach what sustainability is. So, this year, we have been very active in social impact activities and volunteering.
Next year will surely (announced on January 24) throw up lots of challenges of environmental awareness. I think there is a problem with sustainability: many people think “let the government or my company do this for me”. You have to be aware of how to be part of the change.
The notion of sustainability is usually associated with the environment, energy, or resource-saving, but the SDGs also include goals related to reducing inequalities or developing strong institutions. How do you work on these concepts in a university?
One of IE University’s values is diversity. We have students from 140 countries. Last year, 75% of our students came from outside Spain. In addition, we manage diversity in a broad sense, in terms of nationality, gender, background, sexual orientation, etc. Our students and graduates are part of that diverse ecosystem that enriches their learning experience, they study with peers and professors who have different backgrounds and training and who think differently, and that is something very positive. In addition, we have been celebrating the value of diversity for more than 10 years with different activities and events such as Global Village or the LGBT+@Work conference. We have a Center for Diversity in Global Management or the IE Africa Center. All these projects and initiatives reinforce the importance of diversity for our institution.
What do you foresee as the next steps or goals for higher education institutions (universities, business schools…) in the field of sustainability and the fight against climate change?
I think academic programs are going to adapt to the new reality. It is no longer a problem of purpose and good intentions, but a regulatory and mandatory issue. It is going to be like the use of technology: it is going to be part of everyday life and whoever ignores it will be left behind.
Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition