Defining sustainability in higher education: a rhetorical analysis

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Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine the diverse definitions of sustainability in higher education, focusing on the rhetorical uses of the term among various institutions within the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Design/methodology/approach: The paper begins with an overview of the term sustainability in political and public discourse, using that as a gateway to understanding the rhetorical uses of the term. Through this framework, the paper begins a vital discussion about university texts and what they reveal about sustainability in US higher education. Findings: The author finds that university definitions of sustainability reveal a similar malleability and fluidity as definitions in political and public discourse, while at the same time revealing particular trends in the ways in which concepts of interconnection, technological problem-solving and temporality persist in definitions of the term in higher education. Research limitations/implications: This analysis is limited to definitions of sustainability used by several representative institutions within AASHE. Further studies should provide a more comprehensive analysis of a larger sampling of AASHE institutions as well as universities not affiliated with AASHE. Practical implications: Administrators and educators at institutes of higher education must account for the ways in which definitions of sustainability are tied to an institution’s goals, agendas and material circumstances. Developing a better understanding of how such definitions emerge can provide greater clarity in enacting change. Originality/value: This paper melds together rhetorical theories on sustainability with broader research on the use of the term in higher education. As such, it offers a unique interdisciplinary perspective on rhetoric, sustainability and higher education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1076-1089
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Education


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