As corporate leaders pledge to embrace purpose beyond profit, are business schools keeping up?

Some MBA programs are reimagining the status quo by weaving social purpose into their curricula

Business schools embrace social purpose
Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

Once seen largely as the career launch-pad for Bay Street and Wall Street, some business schools are staking out a role as global problem-solvers. Over the past five years, the most ambitious schools have moved to promote sustainability-rich course content, multidisciplinary research and partnerships with underserved communities. But too many remain on the sidelines.

The moment, some believe, is ripe for business schools globally to embrace social purpose.

“Business schools should be positioned at the nexus of business, government and civil society,” observes Dan LeClair, chief executive officer of the Global Business School Network, a non-profit that promotes management education in the developing world. “Unless we do that and unless we work with business, government and civil society, we will not move the needle on critical societal issues.”

Change is coming, as students prod schools for socially relevant curricula and employers seek graduates as attuned to social inequities as profit-and-loss statements. Business school accrediting bodies have added their voice to the choir. In 2020, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) set standards for schools to identify how they will create social impact through teaching, research and community engagement.

“It’s not ‘Tell us a list of the good things you are doing’; you have to have a robust strategic plan,” says Stephanie Bryant, executive vice-president and global chief accreditation officer for AACSB, itself committed to “transform business education globally for positive societal impact.”

Some schools are adopting strategic plans to guide their aspirations on social purpose. Last fall, led by freshman dean Dana Brown, the Sprott School of Business at Ottawa’s Carleton University released a five-point plan for curricula upgrades, expanded research, and new partnerships with under-represented groups by 2025 to deliver “business for a better world.”

Over time, all courses will incorporate critical perspectives on the purpose of business and train students to evaluate the social and environmental impact of corporate decisions, with minors in technology entrepreneurship and social innovation focused on positive change.

Along with proposed research chairs in business environmental sustainability, as well as equity and inclusion, Sprott recently partnered with Indigenous Works, a national social enterprise, to create an innovation strategy that promotes economic well-being for self-identified First Nation, Métis and Inuit people. In December, with federal government funding, the school announced a national research initiative with the Dream Legacy Foundation to develop a national Black entrepreneurship hub. Sprott’s strategic plan began with a question: “What do we want to be doing better?”

“Business schools should be positioned at the nexus of business, government and civil society. Unless we do that... we will not move the needle on critical societal issues.”

-Dan LeClair, chief executive officer of the Global Business School Network

Brown says the school knew it wanted to incorporate a different way of learning for students that would create experiential learning opportunities at home and abroad. “Our students need to be empowered to build purpose in their life and career.”

Other schools are adopting partnerships to reimagine the status quo. In recent years, Calgary-based Trico Charitable Foundation has collaborated with the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary on curriculum, research and outreach activities. “For some time, I have been a big believer in business schools and post-secondary institutions in general as meccas for social impact,” says Trico executive director Dan Overall. In November, in an event held every two years, the school and the foundation held a two-day conference for social entrepreneurs at all stages of development.

Last year, France’s Grenoble School of Management became its country’s first major business school to earn “Société à mission” status, joining more than 100 companies pledging to operate in support of society and the environment.

In doing so, the school commits to generate content and research that seek answers to environmental, social and economic challenges and to contribute “to a world that is more resilient, more just, and peaceful and more responsible.”

Themes of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, inclusion and diversity weave through the curriculum. An undergraduate course on “sustainability as a strategic lever for companies” explores corporate practices (good and bad) that play out in global circumstances of poverty, social inequality, resource scarcity and climate change. For an MBA course on sustainability-driven business, students examine the role of entrepreneurship in promoting social impact initiatives.

School officials currently are assessing all courses to ensure consistent application of the five Société à mission objectives (promotion of ethical behaviour, diversity, inclusion, economic peace and recognition of the climate emergency), linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “While there is already a broad selection of modules, we are harmonizing and ensuring that each program has the appropriate content,” says Julie Perrin-Halot, associate dean and director of quality, strategy and international issues.

With a school focus on planet and people first, she says, “profit is no longer an end; students understand it is simply a means.”

A few schools are expressly adding social impact to their program lineups. Boston University’s Questrom School of Business delivers a two-year social impact MBA. For the program, which shares core content with the school’s regular MBA, students take at least four social impact courses, including environmental, social and corporate governance; purpose-led marketing; and leading mission-driven organizations.

In Newfoundland, Memorial University’s Faculty of Business Administration designed its MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship for graduates to lead enterprises that respect people, planet and profits.

As schools revamp curricula, calls mount to rethink traditional research and academic promotion practices. “We have to change our evaluation and reward system; it is just that simple,” says David Reibstein, chairman-elect of Responsible Research in Business and Management, a scholars’ network that promotes research for impact, not just journal citations.

“We need leaders in business schools who say, ‘[Social impact] is important and something that we will encourage and reward,” says Reibstein, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and former chairman of the American Marketing Association.

“Profit is no longer an end; students understand it is simply a means.”

-Julie Perrin-Halot, associate dean of Grenoble School of Management

Amid some progress, he cites a peer-reviewed academic journal’s decision to accept scholarly papers on how marketing can contribute to a better world. “They got more submissions than for a normal journal,” he notes. “How fantastic is that?”

Some academics successfully pivoted years ago. In 2001/2002, Texas A&M marketing professor Leonard Berry spent his mid-career sabbatical at the Mayo Clinic to pursue his research interest, service delivery, studying how the renowned health organization treats patients and their families.

“The best way to learn deeply about a problem I want to contribute to solving is to go to where the problem occurs,” says Berry, who credits his school culture for enabling his non-traditional approach. “I was willing to leave my office.”

Earlier this year, Berry and top academics from the U.S. and Europe co-wrote a paper for AACSB International urging researchers to incorporate impact in subject disciplines. “As business school faculty, we can produce research that convinces managers to cease practices that cause harm, such as mistreating employees, polluting airways and rivers, or depleting resources,” the professors wrote.

Elsewhere, schools look beyond the ivory tower for impact. Since 2016, the University of Sydney Business School has offered an MBA course for students to work in Bangalore, India, to help scale up social entrepreneurs. In another unit, students visit Indigenous communities in New South Wales to assist start-ups and learn about First Nations culture. The school partners with an Australia-based United Nations women’s advocacy group to offer scholarships – 20 since 2014 – to women in specialty MBA programs. Recently, the school published an employer guide for hiring refugees. “Issues of inclusion and social impact are dramatically changing the landscape, with climate change an important driver as well,” says the school’s MBA director, Guy Ford.

In the United States, Sloan School of Management, the business school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created a global platform for social impact through its Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP). Since 2014, teams of decision-makers from government and academia, venture capitalism and social entrepreneurships from around the world (each with its own regional challenge) participate in Sloan-led workshops over two years. With access to Sloan professors, experts and each other, the teams identify solutions for their regions.

In 2016, a team from Nova Scotia participated in REAP and later established Onside, a non-profit, to foster local social enterprises. New projects designed to narrow the rural–urban economic divide between Halifax and the rest of the province are set to be announced in February 2022. Onside executive director Alex McCann says the REAP format encourages local collaboration while also learning from global counterparts. She credits Sloan with looking for new ways to support businesses “as a force for good and [to] have impact in a positive way.”

The message for business schools worldwide is clear: pick up the pace.

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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