Every once in a while management wakes up saying "let's get disciplined". This is one of those times. In a strong economy, there's no compelling reason to embrace the idea of "doing more with less". The irony is if we were more disciplined in good economic times, downturns like we're experiencing right now would not be as difficult. But that's water under the bridge and human nature - a topic for a different time. The burning platform of "doing more will less" has spread to every industry, from corporate to non-profit, and educational institutions. The challenge is not "How do we get through this?" (which we will) but how can we build organizational structures and practices that retain the disciplines we're putting in place right now? It's easy to justify building stronger foundations when a tornado sweeps through.
Sustainability is a reminder to focus on the long term, not just the next financial cycle. It is necessary to start by tightening our belts, reducing budgets or institutionalizing temporary hiring freezes. But if we don't learn how to retain that discipline when the economy stabilizes or improves, we've learned very little - except to run from a tornado when it strikes.
A great book that takes this long-term horizon on sustainability in Higher Education is Boldly Sustainable, by Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman. I highly recommend this book, both in the context of environmental sustainability but more importantly, how Higher Education needs to reorganize business structures and practices to produce greater coordination across academic and administrative functions. This is critical for sustainability in the broadest sense of the word.