Interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability education: islands of progress in a sea of dysfunction

  • Shirley Vincent
  • J. Timmons RobertsEmail author
  • Stephen Mulkey


This essay describes the inequity faced by most interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability (IES) degree programs and the impact of that inequity on student and faculty experiences. Despite the urgent need for IES education and research to solve critical environmental and sustainability challenges, as well as high demand for IES education by students and employers alike, we illustrate and discuss how the majority of IES programs suffer from limited resources or unequal standing relative to the traditional disciplines. Traditional disciplinary departments, which dominate university structures and were created decades before most IES programs, often have a monopolistic grip on hiring, firing, and the tenure-granting process. We argue universities must structurally reform to support IES programs, given that this disciplinary silo problem is so deep-rooted and restrictive. We assert the urgent need for equivalent autonomous status and equivalent resources for IES programs, preferably as schools, colleges, and institutes or centers that have core interdisciplinary faculty and draw upon resources across the university, or for smaller schools as IES departments. We also strongly support initiatives to more effectively support the integration of IES knowledge across all higher education curricula. We conclude with a list of recommendations we believe are necessary to support IES higher education.


Environmental studies programs Tenure Departmental resources Interdisciplinary programs University structure University resources Sustainability education 


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shirley Vincent
    • 1
  • J. Timmons Roberts
    • 2
    Email author
  • Stephen Mulkey
    • 3
  1. 1.Center for Environmental Education ResearchNational Council for Science and the EnvironmentWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and Department of SociologyBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Unity CollegeUnityUSA

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