On 10 June our President Rik Van de Walle (Rector of Ghent University) delivered a speech on the invitation of the seventh European Women Rectors Conference co-organised by ETH Zurich and the European Women Rectors Association (EWORA). The overall conference theme was 'Leadership in Higher Education and Research in Times of Dynamic Global Change', and the plenary session in which Rik participated looked at this topic from the perspective of global climate change.
The session, which was chaired by Sarah Springman (Rector of ETH Zurich), started with a speech by Nouria Hernandez (Rector of the University of Lausanne (UNIL)). In her speech Nouria argued that climate change can be tackled as long as we are ready to change our behaviour. Universities have an important role to play here: they have to anticipate the problems, to give this expertise to society, to offer solutions and to take on a leadership role.
At her university there had already been attention to environmental issues back in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2011 UNIL has a Vice-rector for Sustainability and Campus, and in its Strategic Plan 2017-2021 it even expressed the ambition to become a pioneer in sustainability, with actions in many domains including CO2 reduction, mobility, management of financial assets, and strengthening basic knowledge in sustainability. She ended her presentation by calling on all universities to be united in communicating how urgent the situation is.
In his presentation entitled 'Contribution of universities to ecological, economic and social sustainability' Rik addressed the following four topics: (i) What does CESAER do concerning contribution of universities to sustainability?; (ii) How does Ghent University contribute to sustainability?; (iii) What does CESAER do about United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 5 (i.e. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls)?; and (iv) What role does university leadership play?
Against the background of the various efforts done by both our association and Ghent University towards contributing to the UN SDG, Rik highlighted the duty of university leadership to address and live relevant values, such as those laid down in the Magna Charta Universitatum as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter of the United Nations, when aiming to contribute to sustainability.
At the end of his presentation our President urged the university leaders who participated in the conference to lead the co-design of the visions and institutional development paths empowering their institutions to release unprecedented forces and act as autonomous agents of the great and systemic changes and transformations needed to help tackle the tremendous local and global challenges.
In a recorded speech Ferruccio Resta (Rector of Politecnico di Milano) argued that three things are necessary to safeguard sustainability: boost research (such as space mining), share knowledge (including interaction between STEM and SSH) and increase awareness. In order to work on these three elements, collaboration (either virtual or physical) will be key.
In the Q&A there was further discussion on the role of university leaders in these kind of tranformation processes (which according to Nouria is all about continuing to ask what the ultimate goal or bigger cause of these efforts is); on the importance of engaging with internal stakeholders such as university boards, as well as with politicians and policy-makers (which, in Rik's experience, are usually very open to receive ideas from universities and their researchers); and on the need for alternative ways (such as shared facilities) to establish international research collaborations in order not to leave any institutions behind in the wake of the current pandemic.
On 8 July 2021, our President will further discuss the commitment of our association regarding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) during the round table 'Making Gender Equality Plans a reality: ERA Stakeholder perspective' as part of the conference Deepening the ERA Through Gender Equality, the GENDERACTION final event organised jointly with the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.