Paradox of Control: A complex systems view on sustainability approaches in UK universities

Andrew Maclaren, Antonia Voigt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

32 Downloads (Pure)


Over recent decades, Higher Education Institutions have transformed from passive contributors to active participants in the global sustainability movement. However, progress has been hindered by a lack of robust theoretical frameworks and extensive data. Addressing this gap, this paper employs the lens of complex systems to analyze the sustainability approaches of all 140 UK universities. We draw on the analysis of minutes of strategic meetings of 67 of these universities and semi-structured interviews conducted with sustainability managers at 25 of them.

The findings reveal a paradox of control that as universities relinquish control over sustainability integration, they create conditions for effective organizational change, particularly when directing resources toward research and teaching. This paradox underscores an inverse relationship between organizational control and sustainability impact. The most successful approaches align sustainability with instrumental activities, such as research and teaching, acknowledging the intrinsic complexity of sustainable change. In contrast, less effective strategies involve attempting to control unpredictable aspects of the operating environment. The practice-relevant findings, provide valuable insights for change agents in universities, empowering them to advocate for sustainability actions, and assists university managers in making informed decisions about implementation.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages38
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Mar 2024
Event84th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management 2024 - Chicago, United States
Duration: 9 Aug 202413 Aug 2024


Conference84th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management 2024
Abbreviated titleAOM 2024
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • sustainability
  • complex systems
  • universities
  • control


Dive into the research topics of 'Paradox of Control: A complex systems view on sustainability approaches in UK universities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this