Exploring fields of ambiguity in the sustainability transition of universities

Publikation: Beitrag in FachzeitschriftForschungsartikelBeigetragenBegutachtung



Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to develop a framework that systematically captures the ambiguity of different understandings about science, the university and its relation to society, while conceptualising sustainability. Following Corley and Gioia (2004, p. 174) on identity ambiguity and change, it seems pivotal to better understanding the ambiguity of sustainability in relation to academic cultures and university models to manage the transition more effectively. Design/methodology/approach: The nature of this paper’s objectives as well as the wide thematic scope leads to the need of exploring a broad knowledge base. This was best addressed by an exploratory literature review with data collection from primary and secondary sources. The data was interpreted through a hermeneutic analysis and resulted in the inductive development of first categories and goals (further referred to as category development). In addition, a multi-method approach further adjusted the categories and raised their empirical validity and social robustness. Findings: Implementing sustainability involves dealing with a double bound ambiguity due to organisational and individual identity reasons. Five fields of ambiguity were developed to systemise the conceptualisation of a sustainable university along contradictory understandings of science, the university and sustainability. These fields offer a framework to qualitatively assess the degree of sustainability in higher education institutions. Arguments for and against sustainability in universities have been categorised around five criteria and associated to the fields of ambiguity. The finding indicates that meaning in organisational change management for sustainability can be considered both, a potential driver and barrier for a sustainability transition in universities. Research limitations/implications: This paper exclusively focussed on the internal perspective and left aside any external factors that influence the sustainability transition, such as political measures to stimulate sustainability in higher education. In addition, the operational dimension of a sustainable university has been neglected, which is by all means a necessary and important aspect. The interrelation of the identified goals has not been discussed. Originality/value: This paper focusses on the conceptualisation and understanding of sustainability within the institution, an often-forgotten but fundamental aspect of implementation. The fields of ambiguity are designed to be applied for assessing the “degree of maturity” of a sustainable university. The fields reveal the different understandings about the role, the mission and the governance of universities, stemming from competing preferences about goals and their assumed relations by various stakeholders of a higher education institutions. The five fields are not an attempt to resolve the hidden contradictions and tensions in a sustainability transition, but to state them clearly to anticipate resistances and conflicts that hinder the development of a shared understanding.


Seiten (von - bis)237-282
FachzeitschriftInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
PublikationsstatusVeröffentlicht - 21 Feb. 2022

Externe IDs

unpaywall 10.1108/ijshe-06-2020-0199



  • Ambiguity, Change in universities, Conceptualising sustainability, Organisational change management for sustainability, Sustainability transition, Sustainable university