Greening the business of business education

Illustration by Katie Carey

How do we create a business school that moves the needle forward on sustainability issues? This is what I explored in my book The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Rather than a roadmap for implementation, the 100 ideas are meant to be a source of inspiration, as each business school is unique. Some ideas could be put into practice tomorrow while others would require a complete rethinking of the way we view management education.

The ideas include adding “shifts” into the curriculum, moments when students are unexpectedly placed in a situation they need to resolve.

There is a course called “From Day 1,” which brings students and faculty from across disciplines together to discuss current events, the impact they have on the business involved and what they would do if they were in charge (and following what actually happens). The Lifetime MBA invites alumni back to campus for a range of additional modules throughout their lives, including at retirement or upon returning to work after starting a family. Another idea involves eliminating all courses and instead engaging students in a number of interdisciplinary experiences throughout the degree focused on identifying challenges and opportunities and acting on them. Many of the ideas don’t even mention sustainability by name; they are about creating graduates who can question assumptions, listen effectively, work across culture, collaborate, who have an understanding of the world around them and can make better decisions as a result.

Collaborating with business to explore solutions

A growing number of business schools are setting themselves up as testing labs for new sustainability ideas and helping partner organizations move forward on theirs. For example, since 2013, Copenhagen Business School has been working with the Roskilde Festival, the second largest music festival in Europe. Researchers use the festival, which brings together 130,000 people into a temporary city for two weeks every year, to research sustainable solutions for cities on a small scale that might be applicable to other communities.

Ideas for Action, a joint initiative of the World Bank Group and the Wharton School, invites students from around the world to devise innovative new strategies for financing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Winners earn the opportunity to present their ideas to the World Bank Group and receive support from a project incubator at Wharton.

Business school INCAE and Nespresso formed a partnership in 2013 to launch a global case study challenge where the company presents a specific sustainability challenge it is facing each year for students to work on. The winning teams have a chance to implement their ideas with Nespresso.

Duke Fuqua School of Business’ CASE i3 Consulting Program pairs students with leading organizations on impact investing projects, including developing impact due diligence guidelines for investors and doing market analysis and investment landscaping.

Second-year MBA students at Haas School of Business can apply to be fund managers of the Haas Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Fund, the first and largest student-led SRI fund within a leading business school. The fund has more than doubled the initial investment to over $2 million (U.S.) since 2008 and empowered new generations of graduates around SRI and environmental, social and governance investment strategies and practices.


Opportunities within the curriculum

In addition to embedding sustainability into all courses, schools are reinforcing these messages through a series of courses that focus on the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability. A number of schools, including Griffith University in Australia, are requiring MBA students to take a course in systems thinking. These introduce and address the challenges of making decisions within the context of complex business systems with multiple stakeholders and short- and long-term social, environmental and economic consequences.

The Rotterdam School of Management is one of seven European business schools that concurrently take part in the Climate Change Course. The course is followed by a two-day simulation of UN climate negotiations with master-level students from the participating schools, giving them knowledge and first-hand experience in finding climate change solutions on a global scale.

At HEC Montréal, a popular course on business history involves a 12-day, 500-kilometre cycling trip across the region. The experience seeks to expose students to how politics, culture and environment influence the economic development of the region.


Engaging the community

Business schools are also acting as enablers to help their communities engage in sustainability. For example, a number of schools in the U.S. offer a board program where students are matched with a local non-profit board of directors for 14 months and serve as a non-voting board member, while also being paired up with a mentor.

Students at the University of Wollongong can become a volunteer mentor in the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience. The country-wide program supports Indigenous students throughout high school, university and beyond with the aim of bringing high school graduation and university admission rates among Indigenous youth in line with the rates of other students.

While in-person initiatives have an important impact, virtual ones are reaching a wider audience. The Haas School of Business’ Philanthropy University provides free online courses, such as How to Scale Social Impact, which have already been viewed by over 225,000 social change makers from 180 countries. The courses can be combined to earn a Certificate of Social Sector Leadership from Berkeley-Haas.

It’s part of a growing number of sustainability-focused, publicly available courses provided online, many with interactive elements. Students enrolled in Copenhagen Business School’s Becoming a Social Entrepreneur online course form virtual teams with others from around the world to study a problematic issue, develop an idea and business model around a solution, and then compete in a virtual business plan competition.


Sustainability within the school itself

Courses on sustainability will have limited impact if the school itself isn’t practising what it preaches. Business schools are increasingly looking at sustainability within their operations and creating supportive environments to enable their students to engage on campus. At the University of British Columbia, the yearly Changemaker Showcase engages and connects students seeking to start sustainability projects, whether these are on campus or a new business. Students can also tap into a number of grants to help them launch their social change project.

PhD students at the University of Nottingham started the Sustainability Research Network with the aim of creating a platform where those working on sustainability topics could meet one another and share ideas and expertise across disciplines. Today there are over 370 members from 23 different schools including business, engineering, education and sciences, and the network has spread across to the university’s Malaysia campus.

The ID@work project at Antwerp Management School aims to support organizations in attracting, developing and retaining employees with intellectual disabilities. The school, in collaboration with researchers with intellectual disabilities, has developed a coaching program for employers as well as a number of training courses.

As these examples show, many business schools are already implementing innovative sustainability-related ideas into their curriculum, research, partnerships and campuses. Through their students, research and graduates, they are becoming an indispensable resource for leaders and business looking to move forward in sustainability.

The potential impact, both positive and negative, that business schools collectively can have should not be taken for granted.

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