Universities are expected to play a leading role in developing and maintaining sustainability. To contribute to a systemic and dynamic understanding of organizational change that is necessary in order to play such a role, we comparatively analyzed processes of organizational changes towards sustainability across thirteen universities in Austria. This comparative analysis is based on data from guided interviews and document analysis and on validation of preliminary results via group discussion and individual comments. The results show that all universities embedded sustainability in most of their areas of activity (research, teaching, operations, organizational culture, societal engagement), but the depth of integration and the type of structural embedding varies. Especially for early changes dating back to the 1990s, academics working in the broader field of sustainability studies were those agents of change, who—without formal mandate—skillfully and proactively initiated and drove organizational transformations following an idealistic and intrinsic motivation. A timeline analysis illustrates peaks of sustainability-related changes in the years of the foundation of inter-university networks in 2011 and 2017, which acted as alliances of change. Ministry intervention in 2015 helped to bring sustainability on the agenda of those universities with less change agency. In summary, sustainability transformations across the fields of teaching, research, operations, organizational culture, and societal engagement were driven by a fruitful interplay of change agency and change alliances and to a minor degree by top-down interventions.
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