Under this pressure, university leaders have made public commitments to undergo environmental audits and integrate sustainability into their operations. But how to start? Facilities staff were not equipped with the knowledge to drive such a change. Instead, universities began to create formal sustainability manager positions.
This is an example of professional activism: when workers pressure their organizations to embrace socially transformative change, their pressure can lead to new positions and job titles that manage those changes. Occupational activism is different from change that comes from external pressure, such as from protesters, or from internal mobilization, such as from unions, in that the focus is on creating new occupations that will help realize the activists’ goals.
The creation of the sustainability manager role in higher education offered a way for researchers to study how professional activism is evolving. Specifically, once these formal roles were created, how much influence did activists actually have?
In new researchBrayden King, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and Grace Augustine, a former Kellogg PhD student now at the University of Bath, finds that when universities first created sustainability manager roles, the positions were mostly filled by environmental activists themselves. But when these roles were formalized across the industry, then they were more likely to be filled by professionals who had degrees in environmental studies.
By understanding this process, King says, managers can better understand the evolution of these new movement-driven positions and how activists can play a role in defining them. For example, many organizations are currently creating diversity, equity and inclusion management roles as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial reckoning in the US
“With these social movements, organizations are called upon to make a change,” says King. “And with these new roles, activists can come in and have a say on an issue they care deeply about, and organizations are often better for it.”
Following the professional paths of activists
Social movements have repeatedly led organizations to create new roles, including affirmative action officers, ethics officers and corporate social responsibility managers. But previous research has not shown the extent to which those who belong to a social movement step directly into these roles.
To find out who was being recruited for the new sustainability administrator roles in higher education, the researchers looked at The Green Schools Forum, an online forum created in 1992. It was first used by students and activists to coordinate pressure on their universities. Later, new sustainability managers joined the discussion.
The researchers collected the names of all 1,435 people who participated in the forum between 1992 and 2010, when engagement with sustainability management was firmly established.
They then collected biographical data on these names from LinkedIn. From the initial list of names, 800 forum members had active and complete LinkedIn profiles.
The researchers manually coded each individual’s work experience, examining each job title to discern whether it would be considered sustainability management. They also hand-coded the organizations that individuals had worked for or were associated with to see if they could be categorized as movement-oriented environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Great Lakes Alliance. In addition, they reviewed everyone’s posted educational history.
From innovation to legitimacy
Of the 800 forum members the researchers studied, 40 percent had become sustainability managers in higher education at some point in their careers. Many of them also had experience as environmental activists. Indeed, for every additional year spent as an environmental activist, a person was 7 percent more likely to become a sustainability manager.
“They were the experts in those early years of this position and had the most influence,” says King. “They could define that role and what its goals should be. There were probably administrators in other positions wondering why there were a bunch of crazy environmentalists coming to work for the university. But they were the pioneers, who paved the way for others to follow.”
Interestingly, the researchers also found that the total number of years of work experience was negatively associated with becoming a sustainability manager. This means that those who became sustainability managers had less overall work experience on average, compared to a wider sample.
However, when the researchers looked at only the last few years covered by the study, they found differences in trends.
Most people entered sustainability jobs between 2005 and 2010. And as these jobs became more prevalent, the types of people hired for them changed. After 150 people in the sample became sustainability managers, greater experience in the environmental movement was no longer a statistically significant predictor of getting the job.
So who was getting these sustainability manager jobs? Not those with careers in higher education, the researchers found. Instead, the positions were more likely to be filled by candidates who had a degree in environmental studies.
“Activists were no longer hired, but they won, in a sense,” says King. “Activists legitimized sustainability managers as a normal role within the university. Just as an MBA degree became a sign that you are a professional manager, now a master’s degree in an environmental field shows that you are trained to be a sustainability manager.”
A way to hire risk takers and innovators
Research shows that social movements can push organizations to change by pushing them to create these new roles, which are then filled by activists who can determine what successful outcomes are.
This is a perception that many corporate leaders may balk at. But King argues that creating space for activists can ultimately help disrupt the status quo in a positive way.
“Activists might make some mistakes and break things, but they’re really trying to push the organization to be better,” King says. “They’re risk-takers who push for innovation, and as the position becomes more institutionalized, it’s not clear that those being hired—highly skilled professionals—take the same kind of risk.”