In many ways, intercollegiate athletics represents the ‘sustainable’ front porch of higher education. The high-visibility, high-impact nature of elite-level college athletics make athletic departments a central player in the sustainable development journey. However, not all athletic departments respond to this responsibility, nor are all responses uniformly successful. According to national reporting frameworks, an increasing number of universities in the United States are choosing to involve their athletic departments in university-level sustainability governance structures, but the benefits and limitations of this remain unclear. Using the theory of loosely coupled systems, and more specifically, the voice of compensations (which views loose coupling as an unsatisfactory state), the purpose of this paper is to explore perceptions of athletic department engagement in shared sustainability governance, and, thus, a whole-of-institution approach. Semi-structured interviews with sustainability office personnel were conducted and analyzed, and the findings imply that shared sustainability governance has the potential to focus the attention of athletic departments toward sustainability, as well as to reaffirm shared values. Yet, to maximize the impact of athletic departments toward the sustainable development goals of a university, sustainability office personnel suggest the deployment of additional change levers, in a multi-dimensional fashion, as supplementary coupling mechanisms. These would include more rigorous sustainability goals (top-down), continued collaboration on ‘low-hanging fruit’ initiatives (lateral), student-athlete engagement (bottom-up), and the development of an internal sustainability framework (inside-out).
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