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The profound threat to the long-term wellbeing of society as a whole, both present and future generations, is arguably the most acute threat humanity has ever faced. But what is the culpability of Universities in allowing this systemic unsustainability to emerge? And how can this existential threat be dealt ...

The profound threat to the long-term wellbeing of society as a whole, both present and future generations, is arguably the most acute threat humanity has ever faced. But what is the culpability of Universities in allowing this systemic unsustainability to emerge? And how can this existential threat be dealt with if academic institutions are not firmly in the vanguard?

This Research Topic on the transformational role of academic institutions is aimed at breaking disciplinary silos and bridging theory and practice through purpose-driven organisations to make societies more sustainable.

Our Research Topic addresses the contention emerging from various quarters that the current academic response, in education and research, for our society to cope with emerging systemic challenges is fundamentally inadequate. Universities tend to be seen as public organizations core to maintaining human progress towards greater levels of human well-being. And yet the growing global urgency over soaring inequality, accelerating climate crises, ecological collapse, and socio-economic breakdown suggests something has gone badly wrong with the way in which our higher education institutions have delivered human value.

Whilst the need for deep change is widely acknowledged, organisational change within academia lacks cross-sector and cross-disciplinary agreement about the nature of the problem and how to solve it – both in terms of research but also via urgent practical change to how the institutions are governed, managed and structured. Moreover, the nature of institutional change in different contexts needs to be examined to offer a realistic plan for how that actual and meaningful change might occur.

To address this, our Research Topic will draw on voices from a wide range of disciplines to establish a multi-stakeholder view of the problem and the urgent solutions that need to be initiated. It will blend perspectives from the academic and the practitioner, linking theory and practice through a unifying focus on organizational change. Specifically, it seeks to re-consider the fundamental purpose of Universities by linking to an emerging wider discourse on ‘purpose-led organisations’ – organizations, including large incumbent corporations, who are reimagining their core reason to exist as contributing to issues of long-term wellbeing for all, and deliberately aligning their entire systems to deliver this.

We recognize that re-imagining the societal role and responsibility of Universities, and associate operational changes, has deep and rich epistemic roots. This ranges from the long-standing community of academics advancing Education for Sustainable Development to the philosophical underpinnings of Nicholas Maxwell’s wisdom inquiry. At the same time, we seek to bring together these enquiries with what we recognize as a revitalised discussion, dispersed across academia and beyond, questioning the institutional logics and resulting cultures, system, practices and processes of Universities. Prominent in that discussion is the burgeoning ‘transformative science’ agenda that directly challenges academic responses to sustainability and climate change concerns. Equally relevant, however, are the paradigmatic shifts occurring within the business sector towards mainstream companies re-imagining corporate value through purpose-driven transformations and the emerging enquiry into what changes to the organization are required, at all levels, in order to deliver a new kind of long-term, socially oriented value.

A key theme for our Research Topic is that in seeking to re-purpose Universities to address acute societal concerns there is much that to learn by exposing the wide range of existing enquiries into this topic as well as bringing research from the business and organisational change fields of research more firmly into the picture.

To this end, this Research Topic will bring the considered perspectives of a wide range of researchers and non-academics together to deliberate what it would take for Universities to become properly aligned with delivering a sustainable future for global society and how, in practical and urgent terms, this could be delivered. Hence, we are interested in manuscripts from any academic discipline (ideally cross-disciplinary) and multi-actor voices from outside academia. We are seeking clear, jargon-free explication of the problem, but with more weight placed on robustly evidenced analysis of viable solutions to those problems, how they be implemented, and by whom, recognizing the practicalities of the situation we currently find ourselves in.

Questions to help reflect on the practical institutional change needed include:

• What role has society come to expect academic institutions to play in ensuring human prosperity? Was this ill-conceived or even ‘irrational’, and how far off delivering to this expectation have they been?

• How, and to what extent, are Universities re-configuring their organizational structure and mission to address current sustainability-related challenges (UN SDGs, Sendai Framework DRR, Paris Climate Agreement) and does this go far enough?

• To what extent are the emergent notions of sustainability science (‘transformative science’, ‘post-normal science’) changing the academic organization, or are they just reputation-enhancing add-ons?

• What can be learned from leading businesses and other organisations that are seeking to put a contribution to the long-term wellbeing of society at the
heart of their reason to exist (becoming purpose-driven) and associated organisational strategies and behaviours? Is a similar re-purposing of Universities required to support sustainable human progress and how might this be realized?

• What is the role of the dominant paradigm of economics, if any, in altering the course of academia and what might this indicate about the change needed to academia and to economics?

• Would this level of crises have been possible if Universities were accountable to societal outcomes, or was this sustainability crisis inevitable either way?

• What are the implications from different disciplines of Nicholas Maxwell’s philosophical argument that the issue would be addressed by a more intellectually rigorous kind of academic inquiry that has, as its basic aim, to seek and promote wisdom, and not just acquire knowledge?

• What needs to change in academic institutions, and the multi-level systems that surround them, in order to achieve alignment with sustainability – everything from ontological and methodological assumptions, science communication to institutional structure, academic training and reward incentives?

Keywords: University, Academia, Society, Sustainability, Climate, Institutions, Organisations

Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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