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A Sustainable Campus Is Attractive – Chancellor Hendrik Woithe Explains How the University of Potsdam Wants to Become Sustainable

The Chancellor of the University of Potsdam, Hendrik Woithe
Photo : Kevin Ryl
The Chancellor of the University of Potsdam, Hendrik Woithe

How do you actually make a university sustainable? You do it step by step and you work together, says Hendrik Woithe, Chancellor of the University of Potsdam. In an interview with Matthias Zimmermann, he talks about initial efforts, what has already been achieved, and the question of how to get everyone “on board.”

What does sustainability mean at universities and in research?

Most universities have taken their first steps in the area of climate protection: It’s no different for us and it’s still one of our focus areas today. At the same time, we – like many others – are now looking at the broader picture: guided by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations in 2015. Some are more obvious for the UP than others: "Quality Education" (4), "Responsible Consumption and Production" (12) and "Climate Action" (13), for example, have been on our agenda for some time now. But they are linked to the other SDGs, create the foundation for them or build on them. That is why we want to start taking a broader view of climate protection, for example, and create structures and systems in the future that make this possible, in addition to the specific measures we have taken to date. One example is our Green Office which we want to use to solidify and promote sustainability in our organization. And not just because we have to, but because we want to fulfill our social obligation as a scientific institution. Who better to lead the way, if not us?

What guiding principles does the UP follow in terms of sustainability?

Fundamentally, as I mentioned, we focus on the SDGs. Since 2018, the University Sustainability Code HS-DNK, which was co-developed by universities, has also been in place. With its 20 criteria, it offers a concise guide on how universities can become more sustainable – from the forming of an idea to its implementation. The Code divides the task into several fields: Strategy and governance, operations and society. This shows us very clearly how important it is to think about sustainability on several levels at the same time: Of course, we have to save resources, reduce emissions, and develop properties in a climate-friendly way in university operations. But our management and governance must also become sustainable and we should have an impact on society with this mission: as a role model and as a scientific and educational institution that researches and teaches sustainability. In fact, our very elaborate climate protection concept, which was developed in 2018-20, is already contributing to this. And the "Sustainability Guidelines" adopted by the Senate in October 2020 aim to include research, teaching, and transfer alongside university operations.

How are the “Sustainability Guidelines” to be implemented in concrete terms? It states – quite broadly – that the university has a "responsibility as a teaching, research, and transfer institution and to promote its own environmentally friendly and climate-friendly development".

In fact, that is the vision and mission: We are not just educating the next generation, to whom we should pass on the necessary knowledge, some of which was gained here, in order to influence the future for the better. We also have a major influence on society through our various transfer activities: from citizen science projects and collaborations with industry partners to knowledge transfer in a wide variety of formats. As a scientific institution, we have a high level of credibility, of which we should make greater use. When we present the latest findings from sustainability research, many people take this as a guideline. We can use this influential power and claim it: Actors in politics and society listen to us.

It also states that the university should give new impetus through "research in the field of environmental science".

We have very strong research teams in a number of natural science disciplines, biology, earth and environmental sciences, to name but a few. They are already doing a lot in terms of climate protection and sustainability. Nevertheless, this goal will probably be reflected even more strongly in the shaping of university research focuses in the future. It is also important to have cross-cutting links to sociology and the social sciences, for example.

The guidelines state that "academic teaching provides the necessary basic knowledge and a well-founded and constructive critical view of topics relating to nature conservation, environmental and climate protection, and sustainable development". Is that to say: Higher education is to become environmental education at all levels?

Exactly. The goal is based on our extensive mission and we already have some experience, for example with the interdisciplinary “Studium oekologicum” program, which is currently being reimagined. However, in order to have a truly broad impact on society, sustainability must of course be a fundamental component of the curricula. There is still a lot to do in this regard.

Sustainability is also supposed to be a central pillar of the university's knowledge and technology transfer.

Some of this will – hopefully – emerge almost "automatically" from research into sustainability issues. Through our excellent support activities in the start-up and business transfer sector, we want to pave the way for good ideas to be put into practice. However, knowledge transfer through various public relations formats will also contribute to this.

The starting point and key of the current efforts is and remains in making university operations sustainable, though. Where exactly does the UP want to become more sustainable?

We have laid the foundations for this with our climate protection concept and identified our most important fields of action. The "Green Office" is the key. This office includes everything that affects operations of the university and the work of its employees – and which the chancellor can influence. But all UP members benefit from this, of course. A sustainable campus is attractive. This is why sustainability is also included in the “university contract” and part of our agreements with the Ministry for Science, Research, and Culture. Above all, however, we wanted to set ourselves ambitious goals and therefore worked out the key points of the concept internally in many workshops with all interested parties. Mobility plays an important role for a university that has several locations. Upgrading and retrofitting our buildings is essential if we want to achieve our goal of being climate-neutral by 2045. And sustainability in new construction goes without saying. But there is also a lot on the agenda in terms of space management: More green spaces, which also serve as "colorful meadows" to preserve biodiversity, better water and energy management, so that we cannot only save energy with photovoltaic systems, but also generate it ourselves in an environmentally friendly way. It is also important to save or recycle resources elsewhere: There are already legal requirements in place for procurement processes, to make them more sustainable. But we can also continue to improve consumer and usage behavior, green IT, and waste management and recycling. Many of these activities, if we approach them correctly, can spill over into other fields, as they give UP members the opportunity to take action and get involved in the mission.

Who is responsible for the sustainability mission?

A transformation towards a sustainable university affects all facets of study, research, and operations. That is to say: everyone. But we're not there yet. The first step is to create awareness of this mammoth task – and the necessary structures. This is, of course, a task for the university’s management. We have to formulate the mission – this is how we see the UP, this is what we stand for – and keep it at the top of the agenda every day and incorporate it into our decisions. Ideally, this will lead to a grassroots movement and get many people on board. Awareness gives rise to action, which can then convince others. Of course, there are also legal requirements that we have to implement, such as energy management or sustainable procurement. This results in a mix of pulling and pushing. We want to get people on board and provide them with useful tools. The fact is: Climate protection costs money and you have to be able and willing to afford it. But it is worth it, because it is our job to facilitate a change in behavior.

How does the UP measure whether it is sustainable or becoming more sustainable?

Our consumption – water, energy, wastewater – has been measured for many years, with an ever-increasing level of detail per building. Other areas have been added more recently, such as paper consumption with the paper atlas. Basically, everything we buy can also be measured. When we drew up the climate protection concept, we took the trouble to collect further data, for example on the carbon footprint of travel. This is very complex and the necessary monitoring systems have yet to be developed. But it's worth it, because it shows people what helps and how. We therefore want to continuously expand the database in order to obtain a meaningful set of indicators to support our work. In addition to quantitative indicators, we also want to record the improved quality of our work. Structures that are improved upon are difficult to measure, but form an elementary pillar in the overall context.

Can you describe in more detail what has been achieved so far taking one of the fields as an example?

We have already come a long way in terms of mobility: Campus bikes are available on all our campuses. They are managed and maintained by employees acting as “bike sponsors” and can be borrowed by all employees. For units that have a lot to transport, such as ZIM or Facility Management, cargo bikes have been purchased to avoid trips by car. Where cars are necessary, our fleet now includes more and more electric vehicles, some of which are hybrids and some of which are fully electric. We have also installed bike repair stations and, thanks to a cooperation agreement, students can use Next Bike bikes for three hours a day free of charge that are also available in close proximity to our campuses. Bike leasing has also been made available in the meantime, or so it was laid down in the collective agreement, but this still has to be implemented at state level. And we can offer all employees a discounted company ticket for public transport. In order to further improve the public transport connections to all three campuses, which have already improved significantly over the years, the UP’s transport commission and the location management in Golm are in contact with the transport companies; they communicate needs identified in surveys and can quickly inform university members of cancellations or disruptions in public transport. Last but not least, there are various initiatives to reduce emissions caused by business trips, especially flights.

The new university development plan is currently being fine-tuned. Sustainability is likely to play an important role in it. What are the next steps?

Exactly, there will be a chapter on this in the university development plan. Details are to be summarized for the first time in a sustainability program with concrete deadlines, responsibilities, and development goals in the respective fields of action. Because we want to move from many individual initiatives and projects in many places to something more binding and unifying. Set firm goals. In fact, we have to, because external pressure is also mounting and legal requirements are pushing us to be more active. Fortunately, we don't have to reinvent the wheel, but simply take the next step.

Of course, UP members mainly see what is happening around them – photovoltaics, media consumption, water. They want a green campus. To a large extent, we are already very active in this regard, but we want to add to this step by step. Some things, such as the components of the mobility concept or more efficient waste separation, can be implemented quickly and chalked up as quick wins, while others – such as the comprehensive implementation of sustainability education in the curricula of degree programs – are likely to take a little longer. But we are tackling these issues.

The Environmental Portal of the University of Potsdam:
The University Sustainability Code HS-DNK:
The Sustainable Development Goals: