Ha B. Vien and Christopher S. Galik
Ha B. Vien

Ha B. Vien, MPA
Instructor of Record
Research Fellow @ Earth System Governance
PhD Student in Public Administration (2022-2026)
School of Public and International Affairs
North Carolina State University

Christopher S. Galik, PhD

Christopher S. Galik, PhD
Professor and Director
Sustainable Futures Initiative
Department of Public Administration
School of Public and International Affairs
North Carolina State University

Individual and Interlinked SDGs: Higher Education Institutions and Metro Area Sustainability Performance

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2024

Recent scholarship has explored the role of higher education institutions (HEIs) in transitioning to a sustainable society, yet empirical questions remain regarding their impact on the sustainability of surrounding areas. This study aims to examine the correlation between HEIs’ sustainability actions and local sustainability performance. Using a linear regression model and principal component analysis, this research investigates the sustainability performance of 105 US metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) utilizing the US cities sustainable development goal (SDG) index, which includes 427 HEIs known for their sustainability efforts. The HEI sustainability performance score is calculated based on the QS sustainability universities ranking.

The findings reveal a mix of positive and negative associations between MSA and HEI sustainability performance, with individual and interlinked SDGs serving as proxies. These correlations encompass a wide range of goals, from economic aspects of SDGs 1 (No poverty), 2 (Zero hunger), 3 (Good health and well-being), 7 (Affordable and clean energy), and 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) to social aspects of SDGs 10 (Reduced inequalities) and 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions), and socio-environmental aspects of SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production). The results suggest that while HEIs are associated with some aspects of community sustainability, there is potential for greater contributions across a broader array of sustainability measures.

The study highlights the need for further exploration to identify the causal mechanisms behind the associations between SDG measures and HEI sustainability performance, whether influenced by the institution, the individual, or both. Practically, this research indicates that HEIs could enhance their impact on community sustainability by expanding their contributions to a wider range of sustainability goals. Socially, the study underscores the connection between HEI sustainability actions and the attainment of societal goals, particularly in relation to SDGs 10 (Reduced inequalities), 12 (Responsible consumption and production), and 16 (Peace, justice, and strong institutions).

To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to examine the correlation between HEI and MSA sustainability performance in the US through individual and interlinked SDG proxies. It provides novel empirical evidence demonstrating an association between HEIs and various aspects of community sustainability performance, contributing valuable insights to the ongoing discourse on sustainability in higher education and urban development.

Ha Vien is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Public Administration at North Carolina State University, US. She is currently a research fellow at Earth System Governance project. She holds an MPA from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, US. Her research interests include public administration and public policy, sustainability, SDGs, environmental/ energy policy, and environmental justice. More information can be found on her website at https://sites.google.com/view/havien or email at bvien@ncsu.edu.

Christopher Galik is a professor in the Department of Public Administration at North Carolina State University and Director of the University-wide Sustainable Futures Initiative. Galik joined NC State in August 2016 as a Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program cluster hire in Sustainable Energy Systems and Policy (SESP), and works to better understand the formal and informal institutions governing complex and emerging energy and environmental problems. He brings an interdisciplinary perspective to his work, leveraging expertise in institutional theory, economics, and the natural sciences to address energy and environmental management and policy challenges. Recent research includes an evaluation of institutional stability in environmental governance, the influence of historical transitions on the adoption of sustainable practices at the local level, and the contribution of voluntary actions to climate change mitigation objectives.