University Sustainability and System Ontology

Aguirre, Grant; Boje, David M.; Cast, Melissa L.; Conner, Suzanne L.; Helmuth, Catherine; Mittal, Rakesh; Saylors, Rohny; Tourani, Nazanin; Vendette, Sebastien; Yan, Tony Qiang


Draft of an article Published in International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior,

Special Issue: Organizational Innovations and Responses for Universal Equilibrium (Special-Theme Editor: Shiv K. Tripathi

The research history project had an NMSU IRB approval


            This intervention study outlines the continuing journey of a university towards its sustainability potentiality. We introduce the importance of sustainable development and link it to our intervention study of potentiality for sustainability from a Heideggerian phenomenological perspective. Our major contribution is that we find evidence that sustainability, entrepreneurship, and ethics are rhizomatically assembled. Specifically, we find that in a practical, strategy as practice, process sense: sustainability, ethics, and entrepreneurship are unified not causally, but configurationally. We use the term "sustainable-authentic-potentiality" to represent the unified process of sustainability, entrepreneurship, and ethics.

            Through a case study of sustainability at New Mexico State University, we provide an insight into the development of a new dimension for a university sustainability interface. This interface exists in terms of a dialogic of sustainability, as it relates to the balancing of competing needs, such as efficiency, heart, and brand identity. An important aspect of this interface is intervention, highlighting new possibilities for the top administrators regarding the university’s goals and environmentalities. 

A qualitative and interpretive approach using ontological storytelling inquiry is employed. Data for the study were collected through in-depth interviews with university members from all hierarchical levels.From this paper’s perspective, sustainability is initiated and sustained through the meaning of authentic care as participants in the process realize the sustainable-authentic-potentiality. Specifically, colleges are one-by-one embracing sustainability in curriculum and research. This article raises interesting ontological issues for sustainability researchers, and has implications for strategy as practice.



            “Sustainable development has become an important issue on international, regional, and national agendas concerning education policy over the past few years” (Kalliomäki, 2007: 14). At a global level of concern, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, made environmental sustainability an international political concern. The next milestone, in 1987, was the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. From their report entitled Our Common Future, the most cited definition of sustainable development emerged. “Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission, 1987: 43).

This intervention study describes and interprets the journey of our university towards realization of its potential for sustainability. Its journey is not over, but there is a glimpse of a vision, that of a path towards which it can reach its potentiality for achieving overall sustainability. There is a worldwide movement of universities towards sustainability, observable in their operations, curriculum, and research. New Mexico State University (hereafter NMSU) has embarked upon a sustainability initiative that requires collaboration among all levels of administration, faculty, staff, and students. NMSU consists of four community colleges and a main campus with five colleges. Sustainability management requires coordination and collaboration among the colleges, administration, and students. As noted by Nelson (2000: 413) “Interorganizational collaboration is increasingly seen as an important process in environmental management.” Collaboration among these constituencies is often difficult. Ambiguity surrounding the administration’s priorities causes uncertainties that dis-incentivize collaboration. Participants, who are highly motivated, yet do not perceive collaboration as taking place, may become resentful. This may also lead to a decrease in actor support for positions necessary to the collaborative effort. The commitment required for collaboration is long-term; this decreases the ease with which participating levels agree to collaborate (Nelson, 2000). The idea of sustained collaboration, then, is vital in creating a sustainable NMSU. The rationale of this cooperation in a holistic context is important in that any secluded solution intended to address a system-wide problem is inappropriate as the solution itself is only designed to serve component rather than holistic goals (Lao, 1996; Tao and BSA, 2000).

Our research is relevant to this special issue as it highlights the mismatch between what the university wishes to deliver in terms of sustainability and its actual path towards sustainable-authentic-potentiality. Sustainable-authentic-potentiality (or the SAP process) is practical (Sandburg Tsukas 2011) strategy as practice (Johnson, Langley, Melin, Wittington 2007) in a process whereby sustainability, ethics, and entrepreneurship are unified. We explore the question of how this mismatch can be reconciled when there are multiple, competing definitions of sustainability in an organization such as NMSU.

A new school of thought in organizational studies is ‘ontological inquiry,’ which analyzes the ‘holistic’ view of the synchronization of individuals, organizations, and society. This leads to a radical shift from epistemic and ontic assumptions by establishing ontological ones that include criteria for developing ecological ‘sustainable’ university performances for producing the ‘common-good.’ Ontologically, this is defined as the meaning of heart of care. Central to our intervention study is the importance of this heart of care. If we look at the university's path over the last 100 plus years, and consider how the path has changed after the 1960s, we find that commitments are drawing a future to influence the present. The university is drawn into what Heidegger calls a totality of involvement (that is primordially ontological) that makes the path of sustainability deepen and be a more foretellable path. This kind of work stresses the importance of the spiral-antenarrative as strategic. That is, the ontological antenarrative is a major contribution to both sustainability and sustainability strategy as practice (Chia, 2004; Chia & Holt, 2006; Chia & MacKay, 2007; Rasche & Chia, 2009) and understanding the complexity of the aforementioned spiral antenarrative (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011; Tsoukas, 2005).

This article investigates how sustainability reveals itself using an ‘ontological storytelling inquiry’ (OSI) methodology. OSI is defined as a methodology of inquiry that elicits ontological assumptions in the storytelling of an organization. OSI adds a methodological tool to the field of sustainability science (Kates et al., 2001). It helps address the need for analysis of vulnerability in sustainability (Turner et al., 2003). Further, OSI is part of an action research project in which the authors are catalysts to the process of system change. In this instance, we are catalysts of sustainability system change.  OSI is therefore itself a catalyst to the process of sustainability system change at NMSU. Care and concern for “environmentality” are featured components of Martin Heidegger’s (1962: 95) ontological inquiry. “The ‘environment’” arranges itself in “its specific worldhood in its significance” by articulating (or storytelling) “the context of encounter the ready-to-hand in its environmental space” (Heidegger, 1962: 138). This ties sustainability to Heidegger’s notions of environmentality, that is, to Being-there, in places, in environments, in ontological ways. For example, work-environment, supplier-environment, equipment-environment, and these environments’ relation to exploiting or caring for the world of Nature are ontological ways of Being. Sustainability is not a groundless, free-floating concept in Heidegger. Here we focus on care for environmental sustainability using Heidegger’s ontological inquiry methodology.

Our contribution to the special issue is an ontological approach to temporality and system change. Specifically, we address what the meaning of sustainability is in a university system. Sustainability, defined as care for future generations, has the possibility of arising from the future, coming to the present ahead of itself (Heidegger 1962: 237). Unlike the usual retrospective approaches prominent in organization theory, sustainability is encountered in ways of taking action, coming back futurally in ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ in order to change operation, curriculum, and research systems by making sustainability present. This occurs in what Heidegger (1962: 374) calls “the character of ‘having been’ [that] arises from the future, and in such a way that the future which ‘has been’ (or better which ‘is in the process of having been’) releases from itself the Present.” 

Utilizing the above-cited definition of sustainability as that development which meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, this essay is structured as follows.  First, we introduce ontological storytelling inquiry methodology (OSI). Next, we provide a history of sustainability at NMSU as a backdrop against which to explore the context of sustainability through in-depth interviews with internal stakeholders.  Finally, we conclude with the sustainability interventions of negotiating the conflicting definitions of sustainability and incorporating what Heidegger calls ontology of care into NMSU’s strategic goals.

Part I: Ontological Storytelling Inquiry

This section develops our qualitative and interpretive approach. We use ontological storytelling inquiry (OSI) as our methodology. We define this methodology as the investigation of the question "What does it mean to be authentically aware of 'Being-in-the-world'?" We look at Being-in-the-world as it relates to caring and concern. This methodology intends to examine the differences in perceptions of sustainability. Temporally, we look at sustainability within the Primordial time of NMSU’s lifecycle. Primordial time is not the same as “clock time.” Primordial time is the time from birth until death. This concept defines the landscape of an organization or system. In this case, it is the period of time beginning with NMSU’s inception through its sustainable-authentic-potentiality.

This ontological inquiry casts light on the ways in which sustainability and non-sustainability systems within-the-university are encountered ‘within-time-ness’. Heidegger (1962: 278) refers to “within-time-ness" as the making manifest of the “essential possibility of the temporalizing of temporality.” Which is to say, the possibility of turning cosmic clock time into time experienced phenomenologically. Our ontological inquiry is about the “primordial temporalizing of temporality” of a sustainability care becoming an authentic potentiality for-being-a-whole sustainability-system in an “ontological meaning of care” (ibid. p. 278). The questions posed to interviewees were formed to probe the past, present, and potential initiatives and definitions for sustainability at NMSU.

Questions sought to examine the ontological meaning of sustainability care, in both its historicality and its futurity. By futurity we mean the "fore-having" of sustainability meaning of care that is “ahead-of-itself” temporally, toward sustainable-authentic-potentiality, where care is ahead of the ontic circumstances of enacted sustainable systems. The OSI approach is one of strategy as practice (Chia & Holt, 2006). Thus, we asked leaders from multiple levels the following questions to reveal the ontological sustainability meaning of care at NMSU.


1.         What does sustainability mean to you?

2.         What does sustainability mean in regards to NMSU?

3.         Who would (should) sustainability look like at NMSU (perfect world?)

4.         Tell us about the history of sustainability at NMSU?

5.         What is your role in the process?

a.         Who is this process for?

6.         How is care about sustainability becoming apparent?

7.         Tell me about the care in regards to sustainability at NMSU.

a.         Who (students, faculty, administration, regents)

8.         Being of care?

9.         Have peoples’ hearts changed?

10.  Are there more hearts on campus that have a tender spot for earth friendly behavior?

11.  Are we doing things on the NMSU campus in an earth friendly manner?

12.  Are there signs of increased institutional awareness?

a.         If so, what are they?

13.  How is sustainability embraced at different institutional levels of NMSU?

The main strength of our study is that our attempt at an intervention study is a necessary outcome of our observation. In Quantum Physics’ Observer Effect, there is what Karen Barad calls an intra-activity of materiality (wave-particle) and discourse (of which storytelling is a significant domain). In doing interviews with sustainability-minded people, we anticipate our questions and observations will have an observer’s effect.

According to Barad (2003, 2007), ‘spacetimemattering,’ storytelling, and the material world intra-penetrate (see summary in Table 1). A consideration of the interaction between the world, which we sought to understand through this analysis and our own biases as interviewers, is necessary in evaluating this study. The provision of Table 1 illustrates this interplay. On the vertical axis is epistemic, ontic, ontology, and care. Epistemology deals with the study of knowledge. What is it we can know? How can we know it? The ontic refers to the physical or a fact. Ontology is the study of reality or metaphysics. Care is the ethical aspect. The horizontal axis deals with the spatial-temporal and equipment or instruments employed in the understanding.

Table 1: Time-Equipment-Space in Ontological Inquiry


















Narrative-retrospection (antiquity)

"having-being-there" (yet no longer)

An entity that is historical

Tools and things that are timeless (not 'in time').

Schematically-mapped in terms of heritage (not the territory).






What-is and what-is-not ('present-at-hand')

Nowness of living story webs of relationship

'Ontical Fact' of matter/material stuff

Tools or equipment we encounter in-the-world of organizations, but just ''present-at-hand' (not yet readiness-at-hand).


Our work environment, the environing nature, and environing consumption











Being-in-time, an extential authentic historical, a finitude, ready-to-hand

authentic possibilities factically exist as 'anticipatory resoluteness'

a Thrownness "something Situational which is making present - that temporalizing of temporality" that we are calling spiral-antenarrative.

Equipment and stuff ready-at-hand, for uses, and functions.

Potentiality-for-Being as equipment

Being-in-the-world in readiness-at-hand

Place, revealed in factical possibilities of authentic existence

The thrown takes over handing down readiness of possibilities






Throwness as the basic attribute of care

Taking up something that brings simplicity of its 'fate.'

The character of goodness that lies in making authentic caring possible, there

            The historical information, which follows, provides an objective reference for the reader to assist in this evaluation.



Part II: Historical Context and Interviews Regarding Sustainability

A timeline of sustainability at NMSU will assist the reader in understanding references to a particular event/activity made by the authors or interviewees. In the intervention outlined later our group’s work in assembling a chronology of historical milestones, by which sustainability has emerged as something the university is embracing, was acknowledged as providing an account of how sustainability has emerged at NMSU. Sustainability has expanded from a nuts-and-bolts initiative one sees at other universities to something that involves a synergy with education and research. As Heidegger says (1996: 169) "Attunement essentially belong [s] to a mode of being in which it is brought before itself and it is disclosed to itself in its throwness." This implies that history is about the potential for the future to be a whole system in sustainability.

The interpretation has already decided, finally or provisionally, upon a definite conceptuality; it is grounded in a fore-conception. This means that our intervention is based in the ontological analytic in fore-seeing and fore-conception of how sustainability could effectively unfold in a sustainable-authentic-potentiality. The sustainability intervention is grounded in fore-having, fore-sight, fore-conception, and fore-caring.  There are two kinds of care: ontical concernfulness and ontological heart of care. The first step in this unfolding is establishing a time line that grounds the history of the system. Please note in this manuscript, use of the term ‘Aggie’ refers to the University’s official mascot.


Figure 1: Timeline of Sustainability Emergence at the University


Establishment of Southwest Technology Development Institute (SWTDI), a non-profit, University-based organization that provides applied research and development services to private and public sector clients with active research programs in energy and related systems. Note: in 2006 SWTDI became part of the Institute for Energy and the Environment.


WERC established – WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development.


First International Environmental Design Contest  - University Institute for Energy & the Environment.



-State of New Mexico mandates all institutions of higher education to divert 25% of their waste, meaning NMSU had to develop recycling program to comply with the diversion criteria.

-Office of Facilities and Services (OFS) establishes integrated solid waste management program focused on recycling, reduction, and improved handling of campus-generated solid wastes.


-Student Green Pledge is created with University professor appointed as faculty contact.

-OASIS class begins with an emphasis on organic farming led by a faculty advisor


NMSU President Michael V. Martin establishes “The Sustainability and Climate Change Task Force” headed by Robert Moulton to deal with rising energy prices and climate commitment. 



Art Lucero is appointed Solid Waste & Recycling Manager in September and implements new equipment and procedures to expand the Aggie Recycling Center.  Mr. Lucero opens the door for students to do community service projects with the recycling center and to propose new recycling programs.  The Aggie Recycling Center installs containers in buildings for the collection of recyclables and implements a collection schedule


-NMSU President Michael V. Martin signs the American College of University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), making NMSU a charter signatory.

-College of Engineering beings offering a renewable energy technologies minor.

-NMSU moves to utilizing greener transportation.

- An alliance to develop wind research facility is established.


-Office of Facilities and Services (OFS) began taking part in RecycleMania.

- NMSU sends a staff member to Washington, D.C. to meet with the State’s congressional delegation to advocate for sustainability issues.

- A baseline inventory of greenhouse gas emissions completed.


- The Institute for Energy and the Environment hosted the Re-Energize America Conference examining energy policy and alternative energy sources including sun, wind, and algal biofuels.

-Interim University President Waded Cruzado-Salas committed to developing an institutional action plan to achieve carbon neutrality by becoming a signatory to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  The first iteration was completed and submitted to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

-Updated inventory of greenhouse gas emissions completed.

-Sustainability Learning and Curriculum Team established to develop advising and curriculum strategies.

- The University Teaching Academy creates a new class to assist faculty in infusing sustainability into curricula.

-Sustainability Task Force Created.

-Staff  member went to D.C. to meet with the State’s congressional delegation to advocate for sustainability issues.

-University department publishes 30 pieces related to sustainability.

- Interim PresidentWaded Cruzado-Salas declares 2009, the “Year of Sustainability” and signed Talloires Declaration of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future.

-Sustainability council formed.

-Inventory of courses that have emphasis on sustainability and the environment completed.

-Web portal developed to promote sustainability activities and activities, gather ideas.

-NMSU ranks 3rd place nationwide in RecyleMania.

-OASIS group hosts World Café networking event on sustainability.



-A series of 3 Green papers prepared by University professors and presented to the Sustainability Council.

Green Paper 1- Sustainability at the University.

Green Paper 2 - Ecological Landscaping at the University for personal, environmental, and fiscal health.

Green Paper 3- Greening the University Campus: Modified Landscape Plan .

-2nd place nationwide in RecycleMania.

-The University joins the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels.

-The University creates an Office of Sustainability under the Office of Facilities and Services.

-Sustainability Manager hired.


-Faculty Senate unanimously passed a memorial to recognize the new Office of Sustainability to support the plans and goals of the Sustainability Council.

-The University administration recognizes and approves an Office of Sustainability and agrees to support the plans and goals of the Sustainability Council.

-Two University Professors work to organize a conference to spur economic development of sustainable energy resources and activities within the Southwest.


NMSU is obligated to perform towards ‘theoretical performance goals’ determined by the Board of Regents, President, Provost, Vice-Presidents, and Academic Deans (hereafter, the Administration).  Such goals affect the University’s stakeholders including the Faculty Senate, prior administrations, student organizations, and the City of Las Cruces. In the recent past, the City of Las Cruces has increased their sustainability efforts, leading to a community atmosphere more conducive to sustainability (Costanza, 1991). For example, recycling bins were placed around the city and a recycling center was created. More recently curbside recycling was implemented, a sustainability manager position was created, and a ‘Green’ Chamber of Commerce was developed and promoted.  These initiatives spurred similar efforts at NMSU.

 As noted in Figure 1, following the sustainability initiatives of NMSU students, two University presidents signed agreements related to sustainability beginning in 2007. Historically, this embracing of sustainability has been recognized as authentic. This demonstrates how particular persons not ascribing to the pure instrumentalist point of view can lead to sweeping change. The embrace of sustainability at different levels of NMSU is:

            still very much a matter of individual faculty from a teaching point of view. If you get someone like David Boje, who's very aware and interested and very supportive. Then you have other faculty that individually take it upon themselves, some more vocal and visible about it than others. You have Dr. Connie Falk who's visible, David Boje who's visible. You also have a lot of other people who do things that are not as visible or vocal, but still do things that are visible in teaching. That depends on the individual faculty members. The dean's don't have a problem with it, but there's not mandate from the deans because there's no mandate from the provost or the president that "a cretin number of courses must include this". We try to do this as part of our STARS rating system. The point is that there's no mandate to it. I think more and more we have faculty. One of the things when we put together the list, you may have seen the list, David Boje has it now but I put it together in the year of sustainability; just going around trying to get as many inputs around the campus trying to get an idea of the classes that have a sustainability aspect to them. A lot of people were surprised by the classes that had sustainability aspects to them. They weren't sustainability classes, but they had units or aspects of sustainability. We had Margret Loring that teaches at DACC on the English department and one of the things she has her students work on is writing about sustainability. She gets her work in, getting them to write, but one of the ways she can get them to write about sustainability. One of the ways you can weave in, you might think "how can you do sustainability in an introductory English class", that gives you an example of how that can work into it.

The 2010 Faculty Senate Memorial, further evidence of faculty's historical embracing of sustainability, included a provision for the implementation of a measurement system to track sustainability (Cramer 2011). The Sustainability Tracking and Reporting System (STARS) initiative resulted in a Bronze Star rating in 2011.  As part of this measurement system, the Education & Research (E&R) subcommittee of the NMSU Sustainability Council earned 25.75% of points available, yet failed to earn credit for ongoing sustainability research, despite evidence to the contrary. For instance, in the NMSU Year of Sustainability (2009) document over 100 research projects are reported. This claim is reasserted on the NMSU sustainability website: “University scientists are involved in some 100 projects, ranging from desalination technology to employing satellite remote sensing technology as a means to help farmers conserve water. Wind energy production is being studied as well. NMSU researchers compile and monitor data gathered from a 50-meter meteorological tower at the Agricultural Science Center at Clovis” (NMSU Sustainability website, 2011). However, there is currently no university-wide system for tracking sustainability-related research, although the STARS metric is in place as a way for NMSU to judge its sustainability initiatives.

The 2009 Year of Sustainability and the implementation of the STARS sustainability tracking report obligated the University to implement sustainable practices in curriculum, research, and operational systems, creating an environment focused on change.  With the appointment of new university president Barbara Couture, the faculty mobilized to encourage her to continue the initiative for sustainability. For example, there was a Faculty Senate Bill, which passed unanimously on Feb. 19, 2011 and recognized the new Office of Sustainability at NMSU and supported the plans and goals of the Sustainability Council. However, recognition of the Office of Sustainability was inauthentic, as the Office reports to an assistant to the Vice President for Facilities, several levels below the President. As such, sustainability advocates have weathered the turnover of five university presidents during the past decade. With the departure of Cruzado-Salas’ departure, it is not clear if Couture will endorse sustainability efforts completely. What follows is a summary of three memorandums sent from NMSU’s ‘Green Team’ to President Barbara Couture, which prompted the passing of the 2011 Faculty Senate Bill.      

In an effort to capitalize on Interim President Waded Cruzado-Salas’ Year of Sustainability, three sustainability memorandums were sent to current President Barbara Couture from the NMSU ‘Green Team’ during the spring 2010 semester.  The first memorandum recommended the University create a dedicated sustainability position.  The ‘Green Team’ believed in order for NMSU’s sustainability efforts to become more productive, apparent, and unified, the President’s leadership team must include a Sustainability Director to more readily tie the University’s goals to the sustainability needs of the educational (Falk, McKimme, Boje 2010a).

The second memorandum sought to improve NMSU’s ecological landscaping. Specifically, the report highlighted the ethical, legal, and financial concerns stemming from the University’s high maintenance greenery and lawns. The report indicated by changing NMSU’s landscape to complement its location in the Chihuahua Desert, the University could lower its water, insecticide, fertilizer, and administration costs (Falk, McKimme, Boje 2010b). 

The final memorandum provided the University’s leadership team with tangible and intangible benefits as well as recommendations for implementing the University’s ecologically-friendly landscape. The report referenced NMSU’s master plan, which acknowledges the University’s landscape “reflects a time when an east coast style of lawns and broad canopy trees were used to attract people to the campus and the desert in general” (Board of Regents 2006). It further states, “Campus landscapes should be reflective of the region and be sustainable” (Board of Regents 2006). The report indicated by creating an ecologically-friendly landscape, the University would fulfill ethical obligations while saving at least five hundred thousand dollars a year (Walker, McKimme, Falk & Boje 2010).

This relationship between the University’s financial health and sustainability efforts has been recognized by faculty and student organizations. In an email sent to NMSU alumni on November 4, 2011, Jim Matchin (2011-2012 President of the NMSU Alumni Association) stated: “It is an exciting time at your alma mater! New Mexico State University is entering a new era of growth, sustainability, and excellence under the leadership of President Barbara Couture. She has outlined seven goals to propel the University to a new level of success in the student achievement research, extension service, and community engagement… University goal 6 involves the engagement of alumni.” (personal communication, 2011)  President Barbara Couture’s sixth goal aims to increase NMSU’s alumni donations, which Matchin ties to the University’s ‘new era’ of growth and sustainability. Matchin realizes what Couture does not: Sustainability has a positive connotation which appeals to the alumni community’s heart and financial generosity (ibid.). The recognition of sustainability by business schools is linked to an overarching questioning of business school curricula.

The City of Las Cruces and the NMSU educational community have initiated sustainability efforts, but a larger movement has emerged among business schools called ‘Occupy Wall Street’.  This movement questions corporate legitimacy and investigates financial players’ roles in the current economic crisis (Shrivastava, 2011). Stemming from this movement is the World Business School Council (WBSC) for Sustainable Business, which aims to find ways in which Universities’ business education resources can be reallocated towards moral and ecological ethics and sustainability. Two issues addressed in this paper are the attitudes and perceptions of business school faculty and administrators regarding sustainability efforts in curriculum and research.  

According to the WBSC, higher education institutions have failed for decades to implement a sense of moral leadership through business schools. Future leaders are educated but a sense of moral and ecological ethics within our curriculum are lacking. Professor Shrivastava, from the John Molson school of Business at Concordia University, attributes “flawed corporate leaders” to a deficiency of ethics in higher education settings (Shrivastava, 2011). Thus, the WBSC hopes to inspire higher education institutions to take charge and adjust their curriculum to provide students with the tools and resources to become involved in ethical and sustainability matters. As such, curriculum and behavioral changes must first come from the institution in hopes that its efforts and culture may trickle down and change students’ core beliefs. NMSU’s Green team has tried to answer WSBC’s call for ethical leadership in the higher-education communities. The Green Team’s third memorandum also suggests sustainability efforts on campus contribute to the University’s moral leadership perceptions. When the University’s senior leadership supports sustainability efforts, a healthier and more environmentally conscious atmosphere is created for students, staff, and faculty. Such an atmosphere promotes the type of leadership the WSBC feels is critical in establishing a culture of ecological and sustainable responsibility.

Sustainability Inquiry Associations

In what follows we make associations between sustainability that is epistemic (knowledge, categories, themes), sustainability that is ontic (having occurrence in that-is presently the system of action), and what is ontologically the meaning of sustainability-in-caring, as a future, a potentiality for change that has some momentum.

At NMSU, there are those who are epistemologically engaged in knowledge about sustainability, and teach it or learn it.  There are those, who devote themselves to ontic Thing-ness of sustainability, measuring it, present-at-hand. Then there are those with the heart of care, concern, and answerability for Indifference and for authentic sustainability where students, faculty, staff, and administrators are liberated for care of the with-world. Figure 2 illustrates the inter-connectedness of these concepts we attempt to uncover in this analysis.

Figure 2 Sustainability Inquiry Associations

Epistemic - An epistemological (or ‘knowing’) which makes retrospective assertions about knowledge. For example, in envisioning the desired ‘sustainability’ performance, our university is encountering the ‘realities’ of an unsustainable system, where much about sustainability remains an epistemic or theoretic schema.

Ontic - ‘Ontical inquiry’ is defined by attesting to ‘what-is’, and ‘what-is-not.’ For example, our university measures the more ‘ontic’ performance (measured by propositions, such as weight of recycled paper collected from each university building or its dollar value; the number of courses containing a sustainability theme). In our recent assessment, we were able to demonstrate sustainability topics in our curriculum, but were not able to produce measures of any sustainability research.

Ontological - Ontology is defined as the meaning of Being, and is often about the future. An ontological inquiry into sustainability concerns disclosedness of a kind of Being, in terms of existence, which has meaning, but is only a future, whose ontic measures are not yet. We could say that the ontological meaning of care is pre-ontic because it is anticipated sustainability, which is only a potentiality, yet is one that has resoluteness of conviction. Systems must change to bring about this conviction.

To summarize, Figure 2 depicts the past, present, and future. Epistemic ideas are about the past, the ontic is in the Present, and the ontological is in the future. The ontological meaning of Being-sustainable, or having care for sustainability, persists as a potentiality, a possible future that is not yet present. It is distinguishable from the ontic and epistemic knowledge established in historical practices. However, rather than leave these temporal realms separated, we wish to make associations in an attempt to better understand the system of sustainability at NMSU. Each element of time and its relationship with the system of sustainability must be investigated in order to understand the whole system. As Heidegger prescribes (1962: 39), “...time as its standpoint...must be brought to light-and genuinely conceived-as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it.”

A contribution to sustainability theory, practice, and method is to make temporal associations between epistemic, ontic, and ontological.  For example, an epistemic-ontological relation can be constituted in assessing how many courses have ontically-present a sustainability module, how many departments of the university offer sustainability majors or minors. These are criteria used in STARS. Another example can be characterized by Heidegger’s (1962: 34, 39) reference to the “ontico-ontological” relationship between what-is ontically present coming together with an ontology of care, as a ‘historical happening.’  The signing of the Talloires Agreement by NMSU’s Interim President Cruzado-Salas and the accompanying declaration of 2009 as the Year of Sustainability is an example of such a historical happening. It reflected the ontology of care of the students and Cruzado-Salas. The signing of the Talloires Declaration was a coming together of this ontology with university policy.

This leaves the third association, epistemic-ontico. This is perhaps the most difficult, because of the longstanding Cartesian split between subject and object (subjective & objective, idea & thing). It is the task of Heideggerian ontology to heal that split with care and concern by focusing on the system of sustainability outside of its Everydayness, taking into account its entirety-its “historical happenings” and its futurity potential for-Being. According to Heidegger, focusing on the system in its Everydayness is not an authentic investigation, as the everyday is a pallid place to be (Heidegger, 1962). Thus, in our focus on the different planes of temporality of the system, we are considering not only what sustainability at the university has-been, what it is-now, or what it could-be, but simultaneously considering the whole of this temporality in an authentic investigation of the system. A disclosure of the entire system is required to draw out the sustainable-authentic-potentiality.

A second contribution to sustainability theory, practice and method is to draw out the disclosedness of sustainability for the first time as something beyond mere concept formation or knowledge to an actual sustainability conscience. There are fragments or parts of sustainability, but as of yet, no authentically historical whole system.  Sustainability has never reached its sustainable-authentic-potentiality. There is a fluctuating gap between stakeholders favoring ‘sustainability’ and the Administration, making up its ‘collective will.’  Therefore, our methodological task is a genealogy of the different possible ways of sustainability being more than a possibility. This effort to seek out NMSU’s heart of care involves consideration of different perspectives; it cannot be a superficial analysis.

Deep ecology supports this deeper analysis. It proposes that a lack of care is actually symptomatic of a deeper problem of the human self, in which we as human beings are accepted as the dominant force over nature. In order to find the heart of care, the human being must essentially be reprogrammed in such a way that it seeks to live in harmony with nature versus attempting to dominate it (Nelson, 1996). It is our opinion that such a drastic notion is disheartening and that OSI can be a method for facilitating change at NMSU.

            We identified three stages of sustainability, each of which encompasses one of the conflicting definitions of sustainability found at NMSU. The three stages of sustainability are intra-actives. For example, one’s Self can see the “ontico-ontologically with an unprejudiced eye, it reveals itself as the ‘Realist subject’ of everydayness” (Heidegger, 1962: 166). When the ontical ‘They’ stakeholders present every judgment and choice-point decision as their own, the answerability for sustainability goes to ‘nobody.’ “Everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known” (ibid, p. 165).


Figure 3 Process Model of Three Stages of Sustainability

Epistemologically, “‘empathy’ is not an existential primordial phenomenon” (ibid, p. 163). Knowing is psychical (i.e. sensemaking or cognitive). It is the ‘subjects’ representation in narrative ways that covers up both ontic and ontological involvement. Ontically entities are related as ‘Things’ of sustainability, insensitive to the heart of care and concernfulness because of the everydayness, leveling down, that deprives sustainability of “answerability” (Heidegger, 1962: 165). Without the agency of the Self, sustainability at a public university is unburdened.

The heart of care ranges from Indifference to authentic care. The concept of being-with-one-another is an essential consideration in an authentic heart of care. The environment-mentality of being concerned with-the-world is how we authentically encounter care. The how meaning of sustainability, from an ontological perspective, comes from a primordial heart of care. This primordial heart of care can only be disclosed by investigating individuals through individual encounters. This is because the classic tendency to split knowledge into the ontic and epistemological conceals ontological knowledge.

       Solicitude and Sustainability – “Solicitude is guided by considerateness and forbearance” (Heidegger, 1962: 159). There is a range of solicitudes from Indifference to authentic.   How can those who devote themselves to care and concern for sustainability become authentically bound together in a public university?  The answer given by Heidegger is that either concern for environment leaps in and dominates or sustainability leaps forth and liberates. This is in line with our activity, seeking to be change-agents of the future (Dunphy, Griffiths, & Benn, 2011).

        Negative Solicitude – Negative solicitude is defined by a factical social arrangement of students, faculty, staff, and administrators being-with-one-another in indifferent and deficient modes: “Being for, against, or without another, passing another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another” (ibid, p. 158). Ontologically this negative solicitude is something that a university can address in operations, curriculum, and policy choice-points.

        Positive Solicitude – Positive solicitude can be defined by those modes that range from taking people’s ‘care’ for sustainability, thrown out to those who can ‘care’ and give positive attending to it, and letting them step back in when it is attended to, finished and at their disposal (ibid, p. 158). In this mode the other becomes dominated and dependent, as care of sustainability is taken away for a while or always. This is the ‘welfare work' with its factical agency.

            Both the negative and the positive solicitude is a concern that is existential. The Ontic focus on ‘what’ are sustainable practice of things present-at-hand of several or many stakeholders doing what is sustainable in different ways covers the primordial modes of deficit (Indifferent) solicitude and conceals the positive solicitude interventions and the returning of sustainability in answerability to people of the university.  Ontologically, readiness-to-hand of equipment of daily concern of sustainability within-the-world of practices for taking care of sustainability, “leap ahead” (p. 159) in “existential potentiality-for-Being” (p. 159) to some future practices that are authentically sustainable and liberated, “free environmentally” (p. 160). Part III utilizes the differing levels of solicitude to negotiate sustainability interventions and reconcile conflicting definitions of sustainability by incorporating what Heidegger calls an ontology of care into NMSU’s strategic goals-thus leading to sustainable-authentic-potentiality.

Part III: Sustainability Interventions

            Methodology: Data collection used in-depth interviewing with university members from different hierarchical levels. Interviews ranged from approximately sixty to ninety minutes.  We recorded and transcribed the interviews, then provided transcriptions for review to the interviewees. The average interview transcription was twenty-five, single-spaced pages. Our reasoning in allowing this review by participants was to ensure the rigor of the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). In determining which excerpts to include, the team of nine researchers devoted approximately 2.5 hours per week of a regularly scheduled class to share and discuss the data. This allowed for a re-working of the data selected for inclusion based on the underlying themes being discovered. Such an iterant process is recommended in qualitative research (Corbin & Strauss, 2007). Further, we worked under the guidance of an expert qualitative researcher familiar with the grounded theory method.  

            Findings: A number of contextual issues lead to complexities in implementing sustainability at NMSU. These fluctuations and fluxes pose challenges to moving the university’s systems towards a generalized sustainability approach. Only system design and development that is an authentic or a truly ‘human-oriented university’ that aligns its values and assumptions to the universally accepted values regarding the purpose of socioeconomic institutions may achieve sustainability.

In this section we highlight excerpts with interviewees, many of whom spoke of these fluctuations and fluxes as challenges to a sustainable NMSU. One basic source of these challenges recognized by most interviewees appears to be the multiple, fragmentary, definitions of sustainability at NMSU, amongst all levels of administration, faculty, and students:

            Well, I think the students are (embracing sustainability) – there is a group of students that is embracing it, there are student clubs now and groups. I think the faculty – they are so busy with having to teach and get ready for classes and so forth and so on. I think the administration is well, they – I know the provost is very proactive with it, and I know that president [Couture] is very very supportive of the initiatives – sustainability initiatives. I do know that…


One respondent addressed the problem of defining sustainability and how the lack of consensus can lead to this aspect being an excuse for a lack of authenticity:   

            You always hear that there are many, many definitions out there. I don’t really agree with that, to be honest with you. Um, I think people say that to cover their backsides a little bit (laughs), cause often what they’re saying is sustainable, is not.


He continued by providing a definition of what sustainability meant to him:


            With that aside, my definition includes the 3 E’s-taking into consideration the environmental side, the economic side… of any situation, and the social equity side. And if you can apply all 3 of those and…  when I think of sustainability the working definition that I use is: “Can you do whatever you’re doing, whether it be farming and then do it again the next year without jeopardizing your ability to do it the next year?” “Do you stay in business?”-so that’s the economic side of things-“Are you selling things for a reasonable cost?” “Are you maintaining the soil?” I’ll use agricultural examples a lot cause that’s where… a lot that I come from. “Are you improving the soil?” So that kinda comes down to the environmental side. “And are you treating workers with soil equity?” And so, if you can answer all three of those, those are truly sustainable.  And if anything that you… the first time prevents you from doing it again the second time, if you degrade your soil… not paying your workers a living salary for example, then you’re not sustainable.


Another participant with direct responsibility for implementing sustainability at NMSU offered a different definition:

            sustainability is consciousness, awareness – we talked about it in class yesterday – opening your mind to new and different things, taking care of your own body. So its health and wellness – we are sustaining our health. It is all of the things that people think of, you know, the recycling, energy, water, conservation – you know – all of those different things, are always included in it. But to me , it is a small range because there is so much more – just being conscious of all things, how to take care of the planet at all levels – from the individual to the planetary.


And yet a third participant offered the following definition:


             The definition which is meeting needs today, in a way, which does not keep future generations from meeting their needs. Which is the UN commission definition. But then I tell people "what does that mean?", "what does that boil down to?" It boils down to "Living Like there IS a Tomorrow.


For the most part, these definitions represent the ontic (‘what-is’ and ‘what-is-not’) instead of the ontological (a futural consideration of and care for sustainability). When asked what sustainability meant in regards to NMSU, most of those interviewed provided examples of sustainability that was ontic. A few recognized the ontic nature of what they were characterizing, questioning the ontic nature of sustainability at NMSU:

            Well….that’s [what does sustainability at NMSU look like in a perfect world?] a good question.  To be honest, I don’t know.  In observing initiatives around here I can see that we have put out recycling bins, I can see that we have hired a person to oversee sustainability….um….Does that translate into greener place? What I see are small steps.  What I would like to see and what moves me is to see huge steps.

The question posed by the interviewee at the end is recognition of the ontic, a questioning of those implementations of sustainability that are not ontological. Recognition of ontic ‘greenwashing,’ that is, sustainability as an image-enhancer, was apparent to certain interviewees. When asked what sustainability would look like in a perfect world (an ontological approach to sustainability), interviewees expressed their frustration at this ‘window-dressing’ sustainability:

            What I think we would get away from are the….what seem to me as maybe symbolic gestures that I don’t understand. For example, one of the things that I did notice that at one point in time the soap dispensers in  all the restrooms were changed and suddenly it had an NMSU, sort of, sustainability sticker on it or something. But, I didn’t know what made that more sustainable than something else and I question whether it really made it sustainable because they obviously had to use more plastic to create these new (chuckle) new paper towel and soap dispensers. So, I’d get away from the symbolic gestures…if we are going to do recycling…it’s not clear to me….like…for here, for instance here in Frenger we don’t have the recycling bins. Why would they not be inside the place where you’re most using…..So, we need a  real….large….grand…systemic plan….where maybe…take one unit at a green it totally and make that the model and then go to the next unit.


Students also recognize this ‘greenwashing,’ and alter their interactions with faculty accordingly:


            And so, when I tell my professors, when I’m in advising or something, that I want a career… um… in sustainability, that’s kinda hard for me to say sometimes. Because I feel like they’ll look down on me for it.


This comment suggests that those interested in the ontological meaning of care for sustainability are more discerning than to simply accept attempts to portray an image of sustainability.

Obtaining money for sustainable projects was another ontic definition for sustainability recognized by interviewees. The following excerpts by one of the persons closely involved in sustainability initiatives at NMSU highlight how the fiscal aspect to sustainability is given greater importance than an authentic sense of sustainability.  The interviewee commented:


            We have to be...there is sustainability fiscal responsibility. Nobody ever really talks about that but we have to have a pool of money coming in, and it has to be sustainable....reduce the cost, reduce the cost....

            This interviewee is supporting the importance of sustainability, to the point that it is financially feasible, and does not recognize this definition as ontic. Another important individual at the university also noted the financial limitations that hinder achieving authentic sustainability at NMSU:

             At the administrative level, you have people framing things as sustainability when it’s probably economically driven. We do it (sustainability) primarily because economics. As long as it is not too painful, we will care. But if care begins to be painful, and how we operate, and the cost of operations we will not care quite as much.


            The above observation is very astute, in that the interviewee immediately recognized that care for sustainability would exist insofar as it was economical:


It is ironic that in its bid to make money, the financial administrators of the university show no concern for sustainability. Referring to a conversation with the university president, one of the interviewees reported, “And I said to her, do we have sustainable investing? And she looked at me, she goes (quoting), ‘we just invest to make money, I don’t care where it goes’”.


Students at NMSU involved with sustainability also acknowledge the limitations of the sustainability movement, yet appear to recognize the limitations beyond those of the superficially fiscal:

            To me, um, I think it’s about acknowledging the fact that we have limited resources. And that’s not only physically, but like, morally we have limited resources, and um… ethically. And it’s also about sometimes making choices that might be harder or more expensive or… something now in order to benefit the future generation like not leaving, not leaving them with some kind of burden on future generations and the future planet.

A final source of frustration in achieving sustainability at NMSU has been the underlying tension between those proposing large scale changes and those recognizing incremental changes as more realistic, and the derivative results of letting people recognize the importance of sustainability on their own v. pushing the issue. This fact was highlighted by an interviewee who commented:  

            When you ask, do people care? ..they care. Are they knowledgeable? That is something to be debated....I know there is a lot more people getting involved, and there is more people there than what we think... I think we need to educate, educate, educate, and then set an example, and let everyone be themselves. They are individuals and we all have different thoughts and we were brought up differently, we come from different backgrounds – its not something that I would think we would want to force down people’s throats, but I think it is something that we do it in the right way, we will encourage. And we have to reach the young, ‘cause they will grow up with it all the time and would be an accepted practice.

Some interviewees appreciated the ontic, or ‘small-steps’ towards sustainability, and stressed that while an ontological approach is most desirable “What I see and what moves me is to see huge steps . . .” it may not be the most realistic:

            I tend to be very happy about it (sustainability), uh… cause you get more progress made if you’re nice about it and approach it as… uh… ‘that was good… that was good progress, let’s keep going.’ Instead of saying ‘we still don’t have this.


 This suggests that the context and encapsulation by the traditional grounds-based sustainability can lead to real, but hard to see, changes. A visible sign of this was described by one respondent:


One of [the visible signs of sustainability] is that we are going, of course, we are required, but of course we are going for all buildings and renovations, significant renovations, are going for the LEED, at least silver if not higher, standard. We have at the Carlsbad campus I've forgotten what building it is. We have over in Alamogordo that's LEED Gold. Governor Richardson said some buildings have to meet LEED gold or silver and we're taking it further, all of our major buildings and renovations are going to mention it. As president cotor said in her state of the university address, we have 18 projects that are going to meet LEED silver or better. That's the kind of thing; again you don't look at a building and say "that's a LEED platinum, that's a LEED gold". You don't see those sort of things, but the new performance arts center over there is going in that direction. However, in the long-hall, the carbon emissions the water usage, the way it's going to be used has a big impact on the kind of foot-print we leave. It also has a big impact on how we train students. That gets back to the educational aspects of how we train people in the university.

One interviewee proposed that this ontic approach was the only way to make changes, saying “We left the philosophical posturing out of it…” in reference to his attempts to bring different NMSU stakeholders together to discuss sustainability. However, support for large scale, ontological change was proposed by certain interviewees, particularly those recognizing the necessity of a holistic NMSU:

            ….I mean, in terms of education I think we are doing a tremendous job in education. Like the recent, um……the Sundt Honors program…uh….that took in a lot of applications for new coursework.  A sizable number of….it’s my understanding of the applicants…umm….submitted courses on sustainability and the course that actually won was on sustainability and they were taking a group to Central America to study it somewhere else. So, in terms of what we are doing at NMSU, in terms of education, I feel we are making tremendous efforts, but you would have to wonder what students are thinking when they take this course and then they walk into the food court and there’s plastic forks and spoons and Styrofoam cups and no recycling bins…umm..Or even when we host catered events…are we choosing the people that bring the pizza in the campus so they’re the sustainable pizza suppliers.  I mean, I don’t know, but I think those choices begin to matter…and if you make them at every level of decision, they add up to a real culture and value system of sustainability that’s very visible to our students that we have…probably a much greater impact, at least  a reinforcing impact for the courses you’re going to offer.


The true definition of sustainability, care for future generations, was inherent in the definitions given by some interviewees; most interestingly, the students were in touch with this definition:


            Well, I think sustainability necessitates a shift from being selfish to selfless,” and “… it’s about acknowledging the fact that we have limited resources. And that’s not only physically, but like, morally we have limited resources, and um… ethically. And it’s also about sometimes making choices that might be harder or more expensive… in order to benefit the future generations… like, not leaving, not leaving them with some kind of burden on future generations and the future planet.

            It is obvious that even amongst those teaching sustainability and charged with its administration, the definition of the topic is ambiguous. Beyond the frustrations caused by definitional, fiscal, and intensity level disagreements, students acknowledged perceived active resistance to their own efforts to initiate a sustainability movement, from both faculty and their fellow students:


            They [professor] think a lot of this is just blown out of proportion and misunderstood and… um… I’ve recently trying to be more confident about my opinions and trying to… I really just want to tell people “You need to educate yourselves.” You can’t just say: “Oh, you guys are crazy.” You need to like be informed and… and… then… tell me: “You’re crazy.” After you’ve read up on it.


            People [other students] just think of some hippie guy in cutoff jean shorts who just goes out and grows who knows what all day.


Perhaps increased administrative support would assist in dismantling this perceived resistance, as support of any movement requires buy-in by top-level executives. The interviews revealed that there was a perceived lack of authentic support for the movement. For example one respondent commented:

            The provost is extremely sustainability oriented. You know, she was the boss or the director at the UNT. The President, I think, is slowly coming around. Its certainly not one of her main goals, you know, cutting the budget, and you know, she has so many other things she is focusing on (laughs). Plus she has only been here only a little over a year and a half you know. So at the state of the university address is the first time I have heard her mention sustainability. So now I see things are changing because you need to get that xxx (word not clear) from the top. ….


Talking about institutional support for sustainability, this person said:


            well, for one I haven’t really asked – the coke bottles, that was the first thing I asked, that would cost the university money, and I learnt not to do that (laughs). So I am much more cautious, of what I am doing – its like – if I would want to go to Barnes and Noble and say – from now on we are doing only organic cotton t-shirts, That’s it. And all of the things you sell in your store have to be made in America – they are not going to go for that (laughs), I mean they are not, you know that’s crazy – but why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you buy American? Yes I understand it costs more money, but in the long run – you know then we go back to whatever we are doing in the long run, about keeping Americans working….

                        In what appears to be a deviation-amplifying cycle, student sustainability activists rely on administrators to push down sustainability initiatives, hence easing the resistance they noted prior. However, those charged with working towards a sustainable NMSU seek to leverage the interests of these same students to drive sustainability, as one respondent indicated:

            For one reason, the President and the Provost, they have to listen to students, you know, they don’t have to listen to me, and especially if I am saying something that costs them money, like when I asked... services to not use plastic bottles on campus, I got into trouble, I mean four Directors shut me down (laughs), and said (quotes), “we make money when we sell coke”. But if those are students – yeah, I am getting the students to do things that I can’t do…


            Similar to the irony noted in the university’s lack of sustainable investment, answerability for the sustainability initiatives at NMSU is traded-off among student activists and those involved in sustainability initiatives. While perceptions of sustainability seem to be inauthentic at NMSU, there is a glimpse of a path upon which NMSU could continue to tread, eventually reaching its sustainable-authentic-potentiality through an examination of the President's goals.

Potential for Change: Goals

Seeking out potential for change may begin with an examination of the President’s goals. Visible to the students and crafted by the administration, these goals could neutralize this deviation-amplifying cycle. For instance, Goals 3 and 4 acknowledge that in order for NMSU to be effective and efficient, it should also be sustainable. These are not mutually exclusive labels; they can be one and the same. Sustainability, if considered as the three-part ‘stool’ definition provided by one professor, would involve consideration of NMSU’s economic, environmental, and social equity health. This direction tied into our later intervention and seemed to bode well for us, garnering the response from the president  that "Showing how sustainability is related to the 7 building-the-vision goals was an effective approach.”

Further in the President’s Goals-Goal 7: Culture of Pride. Does sustainability not facilitate a culture of pride? The student population certainly seems to think it may:

            We’re forgetting our roots. We’re forgetting where we come from, who we belong to. It’s like, we’re so connected, and so related to flowers, to trees, and we forget that. And we see more appeal to technology and other things and stuff like that. I mean not to say it’s not important, not that it helps us. But at the same time there needs to be balance. But I think that we’re just going to fast and we’re forgetting where we come from. Who we are, and we just wanna go, and just forget. And I think that we need our pasts, not more than anything, but we need it.

             A culture of pride with a focus on sustainability would reassure these students that NMSU is not foregoing its pasts in favor of bigger buildings and more money; it would suggest an authentic care for the students themselves. This authentic care was on full display when we later staged our intervention via a meeting with the President, Provost, and Vice-President of Research.

Potential for Change: Eyewitness Testimony

            Concluding our intervention research, we met with the president and provost of our university. The meeting was delayed because of an unusual change in the weather patterns that have been occurring over the last few years. We chose to interpret a delay in our meeting as "not a matter of chance but rather" "grounded in the essential kind of being"(Heidegger 1996: 93) that is a shared heart of care. We shared this heart of care with the Vice President of Research who suggested he may be able to provide a staff person to work with our group and attend our meetings. He was also positive about working on grants and identifying sustainability researchers for the database. Following this conversation, the staff told us that our meeting was to start.

              The meeting began, and introductions were made all around.  The President expressed high interest in receiving a copy of the report we were preparing based upon interviews, transcripts, and document analysis with sustainability leaders on campus. Though it may be interpreted positively we are aware that "All the same,  under the leadership of the they, this  tranquillized  'willing' does not signify that being toward one's potentiality-for-being has been extinguished, but only that it has been modified"(Heidegger 1996: 182). This ambiguity of acquiescence reflects the ambiguity surrounding sustainability itself.

            In addition to the challenge of ambiguity, our intervention also exposed the influence of the other. An administrator seemed to be lost in the other with the question "has work on Talloires Declaration [reporting] been completed?" This reflects what Heidegger (1996: 177) said: "Entangled flight into the being-at-home of publicness is flight from not-being-at-home, that is, from  ... being-in-the-world entrusted to itself in its being.  This ... threatens Its everyday lostness in the they." Hence, while there was an authentic attempt at leadership, the other led to a present-self that does not recognize the scope of the behavior of the predecessor. Despite these challenges, things went better than we could have hoped.

            The presentation seemed to hold interest. Comments made by the upper administration during and after our intervention included a number of factors that reflect a heart of care. The first remark by an upper administrator, with agreement all around, “I really like the heart [of care] in the [sustainability] image." This comment was made in reference to a chart placing sustainability in the context of operations, community, education, and research, and focuses on the overlapping synergies amongst them. This authentic interest in care and community shows a reflection of authentic sustainability that Heidegger seems to reference in saying "[F]ateful[nes].. exists as  being-in-the-world  in being-with others,  its occurrence is  an occurrence-with and is  determined as destiny. With this term, we designate the occurrence of the community, of a people. Destiny is not composed of individual fates, nor can being-with-one-another be conceived of as the mutual occurrence of several subjects." Having established the authenticity of care amongst the top leaders of our university, we felt emboldened to drive into an intervention describing the sustainable-authentic-potentiality.

            We explicated a sustainable-authentic-potentiality by presenting how sustainability links with each of the seven goals of the university. This led to an invitation of our group to present to a meeting of the Deans. Further, the VP of Research invited us to present at a council meeting of those in charge of university research. Our hope is that by gaining this access we will be able to extend the intentional self of those beings, in their being, that we encounter. As Heidegger (1996: 65) put it "What everyday association is initially busy with is not tools themselves, but the work. What is to be produced in each case is what is primarily taken care of and is thus also what is at hand. The work bears the totality of references in which useful things are encountered." Through these future meetings, we hope to extend the tools of care. If we can extend the tools of care that are encountered by these beings then they can utilize as ready-to-hand that which might lead to a full sustainable-authentic-potentiality.


            While the results of this case study are limited, it does provide implications for those specifically interested in sustainability research as well as those interested in strategy at a practical level.

First, this study highlights challenges to promoting sustainability when multiple definitions of the topic exist. In our research, a number of themes developed. Sustainability at NMSU involves a balancing of competing needs: fiscal efficiency, caring (heart), and the institution’s brand identity. In order to meaningfully implement sustainability at NMSU this mismatch must be reconciled, which we achieve by providing a dialogical polyphony of perspectives.  Through the process it is hoped that commonalities will emerge in which the competing needs are not viewed as zero sum games.

            Secondly, at an ontological level, we found the existence of sustainability systems to be “ontically-ontologically fabricated.” (Heidegger 1962).  Sustainability can be viewed as a potentiality-for-Being that is attested to by the caring and conscience of those participating in system changes. There is a “genuinely existential Interpretation” (Ibid, p. 277, caps in original) ongoing among those we interviewed, as an authentic potentiality-for-Being intra-acts with an inauthentic one. In short, sustainability is caring to make systems change, in a community that “wants to have a conscience” (ibid, p. 277). The authentic potentiality-for- Being brought forth by caring contends with inauthentic potentiality. Our inquiry attempted to investigate the “primordial Being” of sustainability-systems-wholeness as it is reaching toward its sustainable-authentic-potentiality via a “mode of care” (ibid, p. 277). For sustainability researchers, then, the question is one of reconciling this primordial Being of sustainability with the often inauthentic portrayals of sustainability. How can researchers identify this duality and, more importantly, how can the mode of care required for systems to reach their sustainability potential become the focus of the system? Such a question can also be linked to strategy, as decision-makers choose the authentic commitment to sustainability and a mode of care over the inauthentic ‘greenwashing’ we found at our University.

            Indeed, the entire process of this project also demonstrates a “spiraling” trajectory, where the ontological feelings and epistemological perception of the status quo of the environment motivate us to design effective policies to increase sustainability at NMSU, which in turn may generate a new ontological sense and epistemological perception of the sustainability efforts. The cycle, which incorporates the ontological, ontic, and epistemological perspectives of sustainability, will continue until the ‘death’ of the entire system.

            The major take away from this article is a unified process that manifests as sustainability, ethics, and entrepreneurship, as it is manifest through leadership. This sustainable-authentic-potentiality process offers insights regarding a number of works. In ethics, the work of Iedema and Rhodes (2010) could be considered from a phenomenological stance as advancing a motivation of care that is a sort of surveillance-toward-sustainability, which itself is an essentially entrepreneurial act. Further, the question of the ethics as bound up in leaderly character that Wright and Quick (2011) speak to may be thought of as one of many manifestations of ethical leadership which, as they imply, incorporates a need for authenticity, but as our study implies, also requires an entrepreneurial eye toward sustainability. For Helin and Sandström (2010), the question of overcoming resistance to ethical control may be situated as a process of entrepreneurial leadership and powered restorying social-referents and expected outcomes as either supporting or hindering sustainability.

            Further, the finding of a link between an ethical focus and firm performance found by O'Boyle, Rutherford, and Pollack (2010), supports the fundamental process link between sustainability and entrepreneurship and our paper adds to this that sustainability is also an underlying facet of this finding. The leaderly implications for the link between job stress-work motivation (Barney & Elias 2010), across nations, has shown that ethical leadership is essential to work performance; our study suggests that leaders looking to improve the job stress work motivation relationship may do well to incorporate ethical sustainability as an envisioned goal. Our work is in support of the findings of Palazzo, Krings, and Hoffrage (2012) that un-considered ways of being that are unethical but unnoticed. We add to this that if the intentionality toward which actors moved was through sustainability by utilizing an entrepreneurial mindset, then a temporary breakdown would occur when unethical practices became manifest and thereby unethical behaviors would become overt instead of remaining hidden. 

            The second contribution, though, is to postmodern inquiry. Balogun, Jarzabkowski, Mantere, and Vaara, (2012) look at the discourse of strategy as practice which is extended by our perspective as situating the ontological practice of sustainable strategy as primordial to the epistemic discourse of strategy and the epistemo-onto process of strategy. Warren and Smith (2012) re-stories entrepreneurship in a way that could be seen, from our contribution, to be an exploration entrepreneurship as a movement toward advancing the potentiality of an organization to become a whole through sustainability. The removal of the epistemic barriers to the ontological sustainable-authentic-potentiality process may combine with our study to advance a methodology for attaining the outcome of ethical sustainable entrepreneurship. Berglund and Wigren (2012) explore the role of entrepreneurship in society if we turn their finding of entrepreneurship into a means of advancing a sustainable response to the repressive material conditions faced by those in entrepreneurial systems, then we find a that authentic behavior is at the center of further advancement.

            Our interpretation of Lawler's (2012) investigation of restorying transitions for leaders shows that the underlying process undertaken by an ethical leader integrates intentionality toward and through suitability, entrepreneurially. Watson (2012) exposes the dramaturgy of entrepreneurship, something we interpret as an ontological upwelling of intentionality toward sustainable development requiring an authentic leaderly stance. Beaven and Jarrard (2012) see musicians as entrepreneurs, a position that our findings strongly support, as institutional entrepreneurial change through the identity, expenses of music are quintessential. Smith (2012) creative entrepreneurial space, which we interpret as a penumbral region, that stands between the renegade and institutional boundaries and ethically integrated in sustainable leadership.

            Reaching sustainable-authentic-potentiality also increases people’s working efficiency in the system or organization (Lao, 1996; Tao and BSA, 2000). Thus, the care for the environmental system at NMSU is also a positive interaction between the environment and people where the environment acts tacitly and often naturally whereas people act expressively. The crucial point is that such care has to subject to the so-called “natural laws” of the environment. Specifically, under the assumption that the environment has the capacity to redress many of its own problems, people’s interventions should be aimed at reducing activities deemed to undermine the environment.


            Within the movement towards sustainable-authentic-potentiality, there are places where sustainability occurrences belong, in the totality of the context of curriculum, research, and the very equipment of the university, placed in concernful dealings with regions of the environment. A curriculum of concern for the environment is the very foundation of what it means to be an Aggie. It makes sense that an ontological sustainability should originate from this agricultural university, given the importance of agricultural sustainability (Pretty, 1995; Tilman, Cassman, Matson, Naylor, & Polasky, 2002). It is not only in knowing about sustainability, or practicing it for its utility, but in the heart of care for all regions of the environment that one is an Aggie, in an “around-ness of the environment" (Heidegger, 1962: 135) that is ready-to-hand to the generations that follow. An Aggie is "within-the-environment" (ibid, 94) "not ontically confined to its entities, or seeking its knowledge. ‘Worldhood’ is an ontological concept and stands for the structure of one of the constitutive items Being-in-the-world” (ibid, 92). World is also an ontical concept and signifies the totality of entities present-at-hand. It is also epistemic, a way of knowing the world empathetically. Ontologically, we engage in usability, serviceability and manipulability of the environment, all these in-order-to dealings with the environment are more or less sustainable.

            We conclude that sustainability at NMSU is occurring in care and conscience as an existential possibility that makes the two ontic associations (Figure 1): ontico-ontological, and ontico-epistemic. The more difficult epistemic-ontological ones that Barad (2007) conceives are in the relation of discourse and materiality. The social discourses of sustainability are seeping into the curriculum, into operations, and into administration. However, this is not separate from materiality, such as from reducing, reusing, and recycling. The discourse of sustainability and the materiality practices intra-penetrate.  This has major implications for sustainability strategy as practice (Chia & Holt, 2006).

            The heart of care is an important part of the ontological work upon which strategy as practice is built (Chia, 2004). Administration prefers to be primary in the creation of sustainability strategy because of this (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011). The historicality of the change in organizational awareness of the heart of care over the past one hundred, and particularly fifty, years has allowed the complexity of the call to care to be appreciated (Tsoukas, 2005) by the strategic managers at NMSU. Without a thorough review of this historicality and recognition of the individuals that brought us to this place, this change in awareness and corresponding intervention could not have occurred, as expected by the strategy as practice literature (Chia & MacKay, 2007). This strategy as practice is leading to changes in curriculum inventories, research database construction and the university's totality of involvement. These chances are reflective of this totality of involvement in sustainability. Heidegger (1996) mentions this outcome when he refers to for-having "As the appropriation of understanding in being that understands, the interpretation operates in being toward a totality of relevance which has already been understood." This implies there can be no sustainability strategy without bringing the sustainable-authentic-potentiality into being as ready-to-hand instead of simply present-at-hand.

We have made suggestions for a path to change utilizing the President’s goals. We understand that that this may appear a small step; however, turning a heart of care for sustainability from something that is present-at-hand to something ready-to-hand allows us to influence the University’s sustainable-authentic-potentiality. Our study and suggestions sought to reconcile the mismatch between sustainability as promised and sustainability as delivered by exploring the past, present, and future characterizations of sustainability by those immersed in it. In doing so, we drew out the authentic heart of care for sustainability present in various NMSU facets and simultaneously identified inauthentic definitions of the topic. While preliminary, this study could provide for the development of new questions to be explored by further research into the relationship of systems, sustainability, organizational change, and ontological storytelling. The finality of our intervention study is that the university went towards its sustainability potentiality, is not there yet, but has a glimpse of a vision of its sustainable-authentic-potentiality.


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