Decrease font size Reset font size Increase font size

OISE's Elizabeth Buckner wins Connaught New Researcher Award for her research on sustainable development in education

October 1, 2021

By Perry King

Professor Elizabeth Buckner was awarded the Connaught New Researcher Award for her innovative research on sustainable development in education (photo courtesy of Elizabeth Buckner).

Buckner, who joined OISE in 2017, examines comparative and higher education – specifically, sustainable development and globalization and their effects on those institutions. Buckner joins Assistant Professors Kaja Jasinska and Daniel Corral as winners based at the Institute. There are 53 U of T faculty recipients of the award for the 2021-2022 school year.

The Connaught New Researcher Award is designed to help early career faculty members establish a strong research program and increase their competitiveness for external funding. Roughly $1 million was awarded in 2019-20 competition. Support for about 50 awards of up to $20,000 is usually provided to the highest ranked proposals.

The award is supported by the Connaught Fund and is part of U of T’s commitment to fostering excellence in research and innovation.

“Professor Buckner’s innovative research on sustainable development in education seeks to trace how university commitments and activities change over time. Her work has the potential to improve university operations, their mandates, teaching, research and community engagement,” says Michele Peterson-Badali, OISE’s Associate Dean, Research, International & Innovation. “On behalf of the OISE community, I congratulate Professor Buckner on this Connaught New Researcher Award.”

To learn more about her research, OISE News spoke with Professor Buckner. This is what we learned.

Why did you want to research this topic?

Sustainable development has become a major rallying call for governments, organizations, and businesses alike, and this includes universities too – over the past few years, we’ve really experienced a wake-up call to do more to address climate crisis. The idea behind sustainable development is to recognize the links between climate change, poverty, health, and education. In my different research projects, I explore how major global trends affect universities and their operations. In this new Connaught-funded project, my goal is to begin a new program of research on how sustainable development is being integrated into university operations, including their mandates, teaching, research and community engagement.

You have a great passion for sustainable development. Where does that come from?

My passion for sustainable development comes from both personal commitments and professional experiences. Professionally, as someone who has researched and worked in the field of international development – I have seen firsthand the importance of education, health care, economic opportunities and peace in improving people’s wellbeing. But my international travels also help me understand that our tendency to associate “development” at the societal level and “success” in the individual with the consumption of material goods. I think this is actually a really narrow way of viewing wellbeing and is ultimately very unsustainable in terms of its impact on the Earth and future generations.

For truly sustainable forms of development, we need a lot to happen – we need technological and scientific breakthroughs, but we also need policy changes, and we need both individuals and organizations to change their habits as well. This is where I think universities have such an important role. In my research, I view universities as important social and cultural institutions - not only for their contribution to science - but also in the way they shape our values, preferences, and habits, and their role in changing policy. 

Also, in my personal life, I make sustainable consumption habits a priority. I think we, as a society, tend to place a lot of value on convenience and efficiency, but I try to live by other values, primarily thinking about the resource impact, labor practices, and financial consequences of my own consumption. To be completely honest, it’s very hard and requires a real shift in mindset! But I think that this is something that is within my control, and it’s getting easier as more and more consumers have the same mindset.

What is the aim of the research? What is it you want to argue/say?

The main aim of this project is to document how universities have integrated the idea of sustainability and sustainable development into their mission statements, their operations and their strategic plans in 2021-2022, with the goal of eventually doing a longitudinal analysis to see how and where change occurs. A first goal will be primarily descriptive – what are universities doing? Why are they doing it? What activities are prioritized? By taking this snapshot now, this project will also allow me to trace how these commitments and activities change over time. A second goal will also be to point out good practices or limitations with current approaches to shape institutional practices.

Does your research here focus on Canadian universities or is there a broader applicability – to European post-secondary institutions, for example?

My research will include Canada but also takes a global perspective. We will be examining how institutions around the world define their commitments to sustainable development, including whether it is mentioned in their mission statements, and what specifically they are prioritizing - including any changes to physical structures and operations, as well as research programs, new centers, or new courses and programs in sustainable development. 

Can you describe the data-gathering process? How will you access this data and what will the coding process look like?

So, there are going to be two main phases to the project. First, we will draw a random sample of about 1,000 universities from around the world, and examine their mission statement or university homepage to see whether they make any mention to contributing to sustainable development in their mission. It’s actually becoming much more common to do this around the world. Then, I will be gathering sustainability action plans from universities to understand “what counts” as a priority and what domains are being emphasized and which are being forgotten. The long-term goal is to think about what and how universities can learn from one another.

How will the Connaught New Researcher Award help you accomplish your research goals?

I’m very excited for the Connaught New Researcher Award! It will allow me to hire a number of graduate research assistants, who will help me analyze university mission statements from around the world and do an in-depth qualitative coding of what activities are included in sustainability strategic plans.

More OISE news

Professor Daniel Corral wins Connaught New Researcher Award for his work on inequalities in higher education

OISE's Kaja Jasinska wins Connaught New Researcher Award for work on reading development and interrupted schooling

See complete list of 2021 winners