Sustainability-dedicated MBAs still the exception

University of Victoria joins pioneering MBAs that are going all-in on training a new generation of leaders for a better world

Illustration by Sam Island

In recent years, business schools have been steadily adding sustainability to course electives and specialty degrees that complement the meat-and-potatoes of management education: finance, accounting and marketing.

Only a few pioneering schools – and this September add one from Canada – have gone “all in” to replace the conventional master’s in business administration with one that blends social justice, ethics and environmental concerns with principles of finance, accounting and marketing to train a new generation of leaders.

That sustainability-themed MBAs represent only a corner of the business education market is a function of employer demand, says higher education consultant David Wheeler, principal at Sustainable Transitions and a former chair of business and sustainability at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“Until the major employers are specifying this in their human resources recruitment strategies, nothing will change in the business schools because they are simply serving that market,” he says. School websites, he notes dryly, never quote employers saying, “We came to this leading business school because of what they are doing on sustainability.”

But a new MBA in sustainable innovation this fall at the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business attracted Midhat Malik, a sustainable transportation consultant in her mid-20s.

A business undergraduate, Malik values bottom-line considerations but not at the cost of a healthy planet. “It is not one or the other,” she says. “It has to be both.”

In returning to school, Malik wanted a program that met her “desire to lead, think creatively and continue my sustainability journey.” With Gustavson’s 16-month program she thought, “This is it.”

In Victoria, she joins an inaugural cohort of 15 students mostly online because of the coronavirus; a program with slightly larger enrolment for those currently employed is also offered.

The new program replaces an existing MBA and targets those for whom business-as-usual is not an option.

“We have fundamental problems in the world, and business and business schools tend to take a back seat to them,” says Gustavson dean Saul Klein. With the new degree, he adds, “we are very much trying to demonstrate [that] the way to be successful is by doing the right thing. There is no contradiction here.”

In a program delivered in blocks by professors from multiple disciplines, students study responsible and ethical leadership in ways that encourage self-reflection, working in teams, and career development. For each learning block, students complete a project tied to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“That integration within the blocks and across the program is purpose-built and different,” says academic director Cheryl Mitchell. “For me, it is about people understanding their own mindsets, and the capstone project gives them an opportunity to incorporate multiple perspectives to understand wicked problems and complexity.” Future leaders, she adds, need skills to assess broad challenges facing their organizations and must be fluent in the language of diversity and inclusion.

In its redesign, Gustavson sought advice from Vermont’s Grossman School of Business, whose sustainable innovation MBA in 2014 replaced a 40-year-old program. “The world had changed since then, and I felt our programs were really dated,” says Grossman dean Sanjay Sharma.

After overhauling the undergraduate program, Sharma and his colleagues reimagined the year-long MBA, emphasizing business sustainability, global economic trends and entrepreneurial thinking.

The school added or refreshed case studies about local Vermont businesses (including Ben & Jerry’s) and multinationals, recruiting company officials to talk to students. Environmental scientists and lawyers were invited into the classroom to expand discussions beyond the bottom line.

“We are very much trying to demonstrate [that] the way to be successful is by doing the right thing.”

–Gustavson dean Saul Klein

Still, the new degree was not an easy sell, Sharma says. Rival faculties with environmental programs questioned the need, as did some members of the university’s governing board from Wall Street. The proposal “squeaked through,” he says.

Three years ago, though, the same Wall Street leaders returned to Grossman for graduates trained in environmental, social and governance practices, now high-demand areas of corporate reporting. In response, the school added a specialization in impact investing.

“The world changes,” Sharma says wryly.

But is it changing fast enough?

In 2011, when the University of Exeter unveiled its “One Planet” MBA in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, triple-bottom-line considerations were new to the boardroom, says Jackie Bagnall, director of what is now the Exeter MBA, since the partnership with WWF ended in 2018.

Sustainability remains integral to Exeter’s curriculum, but with increased focus on solutions, Bagnall says. “We know there is a problem, and it is part of a global, systemic issue in terms of environment, society and government, and we now couch our thinking in terms of responsible leadership.”

Currently, the school partners with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. charity that promotes the social and environmental benefits of the “circular economy,” such as products that generate no waste.

Bagnall hopes the coronavirus will serve as a wake-up call. “What is the world we want to live in, and how does business create that world?” she asks.

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

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