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Universities have long been counted on to produce graduates equipped to build, defend and challenge the norms around them, including those related to growth in a world of finite natural resources. As we move through the 21st century, it’s increasingly clear that sustainability can no longer be treated as a discrete area of interest; it needs to be woven into the fabric of higher learning. By providing students in all disciplines with concepts of sustainability, universities are taking on a more essential role – giving students a broader perspective for whatever profession they choose and helping to create a more inclusive, responsible society.

Understanding this, Corporate Knights set out nine years ago to highlight which programs are leading the pack within Canada. We looked south of the border to the Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking conducted by the Aspen Institute, which had established criteria rewarding schools for emphasizing social responsibility, environmental sustainability and community engagement through institutional support, student initiatives and coursework. Along with the help of an advisory panel of experts, the Knight Schools Ranking was launched.

When Corporate Knights first began ranking Canadian MBA programs in 2003, we received a spectrum of responses from school administrators. Despite pockets of academic enthusiasm, the rising momentum for corporate social responsibility in business circles had yet to appear in the classroom in a systemic manner. Some were pleased to showcase individual programs, while others had little idea what their competitors and colleagues were focusing on. After receiving the survey, one school administrator even exclaimed, “You mean there is stuff (on sustainability) being done out there?” We understood then there was work to do.

The original MBA survey has been broadened to evaluate disciplines not typically associated with the concepts surrounding sustainability, including law schools, teachers colleges, industrial design programs, public policy schools and others. We will return to evaluating these disciplines in future years, but decided in 2012 to narrow the focus to MBA and engineering programs. The Canadian corporations most successful at displaying good corporate citizenship have done so largely due to the vision of the executives running the company. With 63 per cent of the executives for the top 10 TSX-traded companies by market capitalization having earned either an MBA or an engineering degree, determining the efficacy of the education tomorrow’s business leaders are receiving in sustainability became the goal of this year’s survey.

MBA Programs

The results show how polarized business programs remain on the subject of sustainability. Only six MBA programs received a grade above 50 per cent, and these schools were located in four different provinces, showing no regional superiority. The Schulich School of Business at York University earned the top mark of 86 per cent, receiving a high grade in all three evaluated categories that continues a nine-year reign on top of our rankings.

The Master of Environment and Business (MEB) program at the University of Waterloo placed second. We continue to rank the program, despite it not representing a traditional MBA, as it presents the comprehensive fusion of business and environment we wish to encourage. Prominence is given to sustainability from the onset of the program, with students brought in two weeks before classes begin for an orientation that includes seminars on “the business case for sustainability.” The John Molson School of Business at Concordia University placed third, allowing students to specialize in numerous categories: corporate governance and business ethics; business sustainability and environmental management; or community development.

With the United Nations celebrating 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, we also looked into which MBA programs champion cooperative business management as an alternative to a more traditional business structure. L’Université du Québec à Montréal, which came in seventh overall, was the only faculty presenting a multifaceted approach – offering a specialization in cooperatives and social organizations, emphasizing cooperatives management during orientation activities and maintaining an endowed faculty chair on the subject.

Despite this impressive performance by the top-ranked schools, the average grade for MBA programs remained below 30 per cent. Improvements are needed most in the institutional support and coursework sections. In particular, greater opportunities for students to partake in sustainability-oriented internships and consulting programs are needed; more than 50 per cent of programs failed to provide any. A serious commitment to sustainability also needs to be evident in coursework, as few business schools include sustainability-themed courses in their core curriculum; 34 per cent failed to include any, with another 31 per cent only offering a “professional ethics” course.

Engineering Programs

The survey produced similar divisions among engineering schools, with just eight ranking above 50 per cent. The University of Toronto’s engineering program received the top grade of 72 per cent, powered by a perfect grade in the student participation section and a 96 per cent score for institutional support.

The University of Western Ontario was second, guaranteeing students a number of streams entirely dedicated to social and/or environmental impact management: green process engineering, environmental engineering, and biochemical and environmental engineering, among others. L’Université Laval came third, providing the students with multiple endowed faculty chairs specializing in a variety of topics including materials for renewable energy, modelling for water quality and planning sustainable forest value networks. It also maintains several institutes and research centres that focus on issues related to social and environmental impact management.

One notable addition to the list is the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), which is in the process of expanding its engineering faculty to keep up with the extensive economic development and resource extraction efforts occurring in B.C.’s north. It offers a joint degree in environmental engineering with the University of British Columbia, helping UNBC land an overall ranking of eighth, supported by top marks in both required and elective courses dedicated to social or environmental impact management.

The lack of sustainability education in engineering faculties lies mainly in the coursework and curriculum offered. Students are given few opportunities to focus on pertinent subjects, with only 43 per cent of schools providing relevant specializations. Joint degrees suffer a similar fate, despite their potential for improving the social and environmental sensitivity of the Canadian engineering profession; 70 per cent of schools failed to provide any. The number of mandatory courses is also scant, with just six schools achieving a perfect score in this category by offering at least five relevant and required courses.

Taking the fork in the road

There are hopeful signs that the poorest performing programs in both MBA and engineering programs, which still comprise the majority of faculties in Canada, are growing more comfortable with the notion of sustainability, even if they have not yet moved to integrate theory into their curriculums.

Student initiatives such as Engineers Without Borders, Environmental Chemists and Net Impact not only provide students with experience-based learning, but also demonstrate their overwhelming desire for a change in curriculum. Many professors are engaged in environmental or social research initiatives – despite a lack of significant faculty support – because they understand the underlying trends in the business and engineering communities. They are waiting for a transfer of these resources to formal training, which their respective faculties have yet to do.

We’re waiting, too.

To collect information for the 2012 ranking, surveys were distributed to programs selected for evaluation. If a school did not complete the survey, CK used public information to collect data, unless a specific request for exclusion – made by several MBA schools, including the Richard Ivey School of Business – was received. The survey was used to collect pertinent information within the timeframe of September 2011-August 2012.

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