The paper aims to add to the discussion on sustainability governance in higher education institutions by examining the role of sustainability assessment and introducing an assessment tool inspired by systemic thinking and centered on a ‘governance equalizer’. It discusses recent research and argues that the complexity inherent in sustainability governance remains to be addressed adequately. While a number of models and frameworks have been proposed, most of them remain caught between narrow, management-oriented approaches on the one hand, and rather abstract approaches that provide little guidance for improving the field on the other. Sustainability assessment tools represent a potential way to bridge this gap. While there are existing tools which include issues of sustainability governance, these are often limited to aspects that are easily quantifiable and neglect more complex aspects. Against this background, the article proposes an alternative tool to assess sustainability governance in higher education institutions. The tool is based on a multi-case study in Germany and has been tested in a series of workshops. Drawing on the concept of a ‘governance equalizer’, it focuses on the functional requirements of sustainability governance in five dimensions—politics, profession, organization, knowledge, and the public—and how they are addressed by the HEI. The tool raises the level of abstraction in order to capture complexity, but at the same time keeps sight of governance structures, processes, instruments, and practices. It combines clearly defined criteria that are assessed using carefully developed maturity scales with a focus on stakeholder participation and knowledge.
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