GUNi LogoBy Valentin Tappeser. In this article, Valentin Tappeser from Maastricht University presents the Maastricht University Green Office, a student-led department that develops sustainability projects by students, staff and faculty, as a successful example of how empowering students can be a productive and major stride to help shape and transform universities in their voyage towards sustainability and innovation.
When the world’s governments were meeting at Rio+20 this June to discuss the future of sustainable development, among the various issues addressed in the overwhelming plethora of side events, the role of higher education in sustainability was a fairly prominent concern.  The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities, the launch of the Higher Education Initiative for Rio+20, as well as a number of other events and fora on the issue brought together some of the leading decision-makers, movers and shakers in the field. While much progress has been made since 1992 in transforming universities to become drivers of societal change through research and education, as well as to become organizational role models for wider society in terms of sustainability, a certain structural conservatism of these often century old institutions and the still pervasive obliviousness and ignorance towards the issue on the side of many administrators, faculty members, staff and students, leaves most institutions far from where they probably could and should be.
While some educators and administrators have been veritable champions, driving the transformation of their institutions towards modes of operation more adept to the challenges, normative and material imperatives of sustainable development, it is oftentimes the students problematizing engrained practices and shortcomings regarding sustainability. It is also students who, less burdened by the treadmill of academic production and the pressures it creates, come up with alternatives and drive initiatives for change. Yet, and this is something that struck me again in Rio, the discourse in education for sustainable development and sustainability in higher education debates seems to largely ignore this fact. While the importance and engagement of students is deemed highly important as such, they are mostly framed as objects to be changed, to be made aware and to be shaped rather than being seen as the active agents of change that they frequently are.
This situation, likely stemming from the inherent hierarchy of student-teacher relationships and the notion that knowledge and wisdom is brought from faculty to students, and not the other way round, so I argue, significantly impedes the potential for institutional transformation towards sustainable development in the higher education sector and society at large. In altering this discourse and empowering students to shape and transform their institutions, not just on the level of a recycling initiative or a poster campaign but by actually integrating them deeply into the governance process, universities can make a major step towards fulfilling sustainability imperatives, drive innovation and truly become learning organizations themselves.
At Maastricht University (UM), possibly because of a lack of promising alternatives, but also due to a very student-centered institutional philosophy, the bold endorsementof a student initiative by university management produced astonishing successes in an institution that until then could hardly be considered as a first mover in the field of sustainability.  A handful of students, including myself, after polishing a sort of vision we created in consultation with a number of key stakeholders, approached the management team with the proposal to launch Maastricht University Green Office, astudent-run sustainability department that drives and supports sustainability projects by students, staff and faculty. That was in 2010, and the surprise I had when, some two weeks after our proposal presentation, I got a phone call from my vice-president saying that we should go through with this, transforms into astonishment mixed with a sense of pride, when l look at what has happened since.  Two years into its existence, the Green Office is a fully functional department run by 8 part-time student employees, dozens of volunteers and the university’s environmental consultant.It serves as an incubator and catalyser, connecting disparate actors and knowledges. It develops and monitors the university’s sustainability policy, and through close links with top-management, the research and student communities, it initiates, drives and supports projects in education, research, operations and the broader community.  Backed by its own supervisory board with representatives and experts from academia, politics, management and private enterprise, the Green Office has started to transform not only the way the university operates, but also the institution’s self-understanding and the mind-set of its members. From an institution that, despite the existence of an internationally recognized sustainability research institute, had a very low profile in terms of sustainability for the organization as a whole, UM is turning into one of the most innovative and sustainable universities in the country and beyond, recently acknowledged by the Sustainabul Award 2012, recognizing it as the university with the most transparent and sustainable policies in the Netherlands, as well as the International Sustainable Campus Network’s and oikos International’s Student Leadership Award for the Green Office.
The experience in Maastricht shows that students can be effective change-agents if they are given the chance. As institutional entrepreneurs, they are able to drive processes of institutional transformation, to innovate and to challenge the status quo. Their inclusion and active empowerment makes sense not only from a sustainability governance perspective, which stresses the importance of inclusion, transparency and multi-stakeholder processes in decision-making, as well as a university governance perspective stressing the need for student participation, but also from an innovation and institutional theory perspective. Students are not as deeply embedded in the institutional logics of their host universities as faculty and administrators are. Thus, where staff and management are unable to envision alternatives to the way things are done currently, students have the ability to critically assess and innovate institutional structures towards more sustainable organizations. If they are given the support and the power to develop and implement their ideas, universities have the chance to transform themselves, while the students gain valuable experience and skills along the way.
Naturally, if it was that easy to integrate students into the organizational structures of the university, it would be a much more pervasive phenomenon. Students’ increasingly short presence at their institutions, interrupted by exchange semesters, internships and the likes, make it difficult to for them to meaningfully engage in usually rather complex and slow decision-making or project implementation procedures. It takes time to learn how things work, to get to know the relevant stakeholders inside and outside the university, and to build the expertise, trust and leverage to successfully implement projects. In the case of the Green Office in Maastricht, it seems that while learning curves cannot be steepened unlimitedly, the institutionalization of a highly competitive hiring process ensuring a balance between experienced and aspiring project coordinators in the student team, good relationship management with outside stakeholders, a large pool of volunteers, as well as a tailored, bi-weekly training programme with experts from inside and outside the institution, continuity problems could be sufficiently tamed. In fact, with the third generation of students working at the Green Office now, it continues to grow and expand its leverage and impact on the institution. Having implemented significant energy-efficiency measures throughout the institution, a baseline analysis and a binding sustainability policy with wide-ranging measures in research, education, operations and community for the next three years, it is currently coordinating the development of a long-range, multi-stakeholder visioning and roadmap process to set sustainability targets for 2030.
In that sense, it might be cautiously suggested that the Green Office has turned the continuity problem associated with student engagement in university sustainability governance into an asset, as management backing and good transition management maintain and increase the power and centrality of the Green Office in the institution over time, while revolving student generations within that structure maintain the critical consciousness necessary to keep innovation processes alive(Tappeser & Meyer, 2012). As I have argued elsewhere (Ibid.), in theoretical terms, it may thus be an interesting approach to solve the problem of embedded agency as it is discussed in organizational studies literature(Meyerson & Tompkins, 2007) on institutional entrepreneurship.
The experience drawn from Maastricht, and the realization that by enabling effective student participation universities can seriously improve education and research for sustainable development as well as their own operations in environmental, social and also economic terms has led us, four founding members of the Green Office, to promote this concept to other universities as well as to further develop the theoretical understanding of institutional change processes towards sustainability. We therefore created Green Office Europe, promoting the creation of Green Offices and assisting universities in the process. A foundation set-up in May in Maastricht with the aim to establish a network, promote and undertake research, is now being complemented by a consulting firm based in Berlin, assisting in the creation of participatory governance structures to do its bit to contribute to the necessary transformation of the European higher education landscape.
Thus, if there is something that I would like to see reverberating as a message from Rio, it would be along the lines of the closing statement of the Major Group for Children and Youth, widely adopted by civil society representatives at the rather disappointing end of the conference: If you are unable to stand up, then you must be unwilling to move forward. So we will move forward for you. In a university context, this may translate into: make room for the students, for they can and they will tackle the challenges of sustainable development for themselves and future generations. Rather than understanding them as objects to be transformed, give them some space to act, and let them transform our universities, so they can transform the institutions they find themselves to be working in afterwards.
To find out more about Maastricht University Green Office or Green Office Europe, visit or You can also contact the author at
Meyerson, D., & Tompkins, M. (2007). Tempered radicals as institutional change agents: The case of advancing gender equity at the University of Michigan. Harv. JL & Gender, 30, 303.
Tappeser, V., & Meyer, A. (2012). Change Agents in Sustainability Governance. In W. L. Filho (Ed.), Sustainable Development at Universities: New Horizons. Hamburg: Peter Lang
About the author

Valentin Tappeser is a young sustainability researcher and entrepreneur. He graduated from Maastricht University in 2012, where he co-founded Maastricht University Green Office, as well as a number of other initiatives in the areas of media and culture. He is currently following a Master of Arts in Global Studies at the University of Freiburg, FLACSO Argentina and Jahawal Nehru University Delhi. With Green Office Europe, he and his colleagues are working to build sustainable institutions in the higher education landscape.