| 7 minute read

Unlocking Western Sydney University’s top Times Higher Ed Impact Ranking

Elena Galán-Muros
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In this episode, we talk about all things sustainability at Western Sydney University with Jen Dollin, Director of Sustainability Education and Partnerships.

Jen explains how WSU’s sustainability strategies go beyond carbon neutrality, involving climate resilience efforts and commitments aligned with the UN SDGs, contributing to their top-ranking recognition in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. She also sheds light on WSU’s community engagement: From collaborations in urban research to mapping cool suburbs, the university is actively involved in shaping a sustainable future.

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In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Madeline Arkins:
Could you tell us a little bit more your role as the Director of Sustainability Education at WSU and how that fits with the general commitment of WSU to sustainability?

Jen Dollin:
I have been at the university for the last 15 years and had the privilege to see how the university has moved forward with sustainability in an exciting way.

I sit outside the academic structures, and I report up to the Pro Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor. This allows me to have a bird’s-eye view across the university and develop important partnerships with a whole range of colleagues at the university.

Madeline Arkins:
What do “holistic sustainability strategies” look like? What does that mean for you and how does that fit in with your role?

Jen Dollin:
If you come from a business or a corporate sector, sustainability strategies are very much focused mostly on their operational activities, and there is now a bit more of a crossover into social sustainability agenda in general.

For me, holistic strategies are like the ones that we have just delivered in our decadal strategy. These take a very close look at the core operational areas of our institution, which are mainly teaching and research, but also engagement and how we collaborate and extend in our local community and our operations.

Our university is essentially a small town. We sit across multiple areas, and we are equivalent to a small region. If we teach sustainability and think about sustainability as a philosophy and an ethos, it’s also a practice. It’s really important that universities particularly demonstrate that and what that looks like, as well as how to think like that.

When I’m talking about these strategies, I would really want to acknowledge the work of my colleague, professor Juan Salazar. I co-authored our decade strategy with Juan three years ago, and we had a small but dynamic working group that sat across those core areas of a university – curriculum, operations, research and engagement. There’s many of us with our thinking aligned and put into this.

Madeline Arkins:
It certainly seems like that thinking has pulled off because WSU has been named the top in the Times Higher Ed rankings for this commitment to sustainability, which is great to see. It’s one thing to carry out these practices and it’s entirely another to be acknowledged at such a high level. Congratulations on that.

I was wondering if you could give maybe some examples of strategies that have been put in place that you think really walk the walk of what you’re doing.

Jen Dollin:
Thank you for that acknowledgement. We are a young university that comes from a college background, and we have always been deeply embedded in this community, starting in Western Sydney and beyond.

Our campus operations have been doing a lot of work particularly around climate resilience and what that means for our campus infrastructure.

In June 2021, we became 100% green powered for all our electricity supply. We had also made a commitment of being carbon neutral by 2025, but we have reached that through our climate active accreditation in February 2023.

We have also harvested and recycled stormwater for 20 years, and we have a regenerative agricultural philosophy, which has been a journey for eight years. There are multiple levels, and it has been a long journey that has required a huge investment and acknowledgement from our university, but it has been really exciting.

Madeline Arkins:
When I was reading your bio, I came across one of your research interests, which is ecofeminism.

Jen Dollin:
Glad you did!

Madeline Arkins:
I wanted to know how these principles of ecofeminist play into your role, or maybe even enhance sustainability strategies within higher education. Also, for the uninitiated, could you also say what ecofeminism is?

Jen Dollin:
There are many waves of ecofeminism, and I’m probably in the third wave of it. It critically looks at the intersections within a patriarchal society, between environmental degradation, racism, class exploitation, and sexism.

It’s totally my research interest, but if you take lesson from ecofeminism, it’s working more towards an ethics of care, rather than being combative. And it’s also thinking about how we move forward in a more collaborative way. I would be crucified if I actually put ecofeminist up as a foundational principle in a strategy.

The reason why I think our decadal strategy has been embraced, particularly by academics, is that we’ve taken a pluralist approach. We haven’t said “we all need to be eco feminist” or “we are all going to be systems agriculturalists” or “we are all going to be social ecologists” or some of the various waves of theories that come here.

I met the Dalai Lama many years ago and he said to me “There are many ways up the mountain”. That is why we have taken this dynamic approach and that strategy in our nine core priority statements and challenges.

The eco feminist work that I do with Professor Juan Salazar, is framing the strategy very carefully around a language of inclusion and of careful consideration. Evolution, not revolution.

We agonized over quite a lot of words and how we use them and whose voice we wanted to represent and how, and I think that comes down to those foundations of that thinking.

Madeline Arkins:
University-community engagement is obviously a very important branch of caring, not only for student and staff population, but also the surrounding ecosystem that the university pulls resources from and also gives in return.

How does WSU extend its influence in community in this way and what impact has it had there?

Jen Dollin:
It is a two-way, we learn from our communities as well. It’s in our core foundational articles, in our DNA, and how we move. We are not big. Sandstone Institution, we are young, and we have come out of being deeply engaged with our schools for 20 years. It is also how we work in our community. There is a wonderful researcher, Sebastian Pfautsch, who works on urban cooling and how we map with our local councillors the idea of creating cool suburbs.

That is an amazing example of how that works, he works across the entire Western Sydney regional organisation of councils and moving up into public policy areas. That is one way in terms of research, in terms of our schools engagement, we do quite a lot around that in terms of pathways, participation, access and equity.

We also work with communities across the river and are currently grappling the idea of what is a voice for the river and how does that look like. I have just given you a couple of highlights on how we work with communities, but it’s something that has grown with the university as we have matured.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can learn more about the characteristics and skills researchers need to be able to successfully create impact from their work in our podcast episode Research Valorisation | Skills for valorisation and commercialisation, or you can watch our video on three simple actions to help academics in the valorisation process.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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