Business schools up the grade on sustainability

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

There have been some promising signs of progress in business education of late. Special issues of top-tier academic journals are being devoted to sustainability and the climate crisis. New core and elective business-school courses are exploring United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. More scholars interested in sustainability are being hired.

Much heavy lifting remains, but sustainability-linked topics are increasingly being integrated into core and elective courses at business schools – an encouraging development as Corporate Knights publishes its 2019 “Better World” MBA global rankings. This year, 146 schools (up from 141 in 2018) were evaluated for their sustainability performance, based on publicly available data, on faculty research, citations in top journals, core course content and relevant research institutes and centres.

“Now more than ever is the best time to be involved in this area,” says Frederik Dahlmann, associate professor of strategy and sustainability at the Warwick Business School, which retained top spot in the Better World rankings for the second year in a row.

Dahlmann praises an earlier generation of scholars as “groundbreakers” who raised sustainability as a legitimate topic for leading academic journals.

“They have been championing research on sustainability directly as editors of those [academic] journals or through special issues,” he says. “I think there is a two-way recognition now that mainstream management journals have to be a bit more responsive to those wider needs, beyond what is typically seen as management issues.”

Research collaboration across disciplines is another growing phenomenon. York University’s Schulich School of Business, which moved into sole possession of second place in this year’s rankings, highlights the large number of its faculty, 46 in all and from diverse disciplines, who participated in research reviewed in the Better World analysis.

These professors account for more than half of Schulich’s full-time tenure stream, according to a school spokesman, drawn from marketing, entrepreneurship and supply chain management, not just ethics and corporate social responsibility.

At Duquesne University’s Palumbo-Donahue School of Business, with an MBA in sustainable business practices that dates to 2007, Murrin Chair of Global Competitiveness Robert Sroufe also sees momentum. “There are more special designations for groups and professional societies that are looking at sustainability,” he says, along with a growing number of journal proposal calls for contributions exploring the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

In July, Management Science announced plans for a special issue on business and climate change, commenting that “far too little research is being conducted to provide the critical insights that companies and managers need” to respond to global warming.

Schools are also looking to up their game to teach the next generation of leaders.

Palumbo-Donahue, for example, is turning its building into a “living laboratory” to measure energy and water efficiency, air quality and carbon dioxide emissions. This fall, the information will be posted live on a 55-inch television at the school so students, researchers and visitors can see first-hand one building’s environmental impact.


“You need to weave sustainability and technology and innovation into every course so that the finance professor is not teaching [students] how to make a million dollars but is teaching finance for impact and looking at how sustainable investment funds work.”

—David Dunne,
director of Gustavson’s MBA programs


“We are finding our indoor air quality is 2.5 times better than it is outdoors,” says Sroufe, of data collected so far. “Outdoor air quality is a big issue globally, so now we can start challenging people on how do we make this better, indoors and outdoors, while saving money doing it.”

Changes are also coming to the classroom, with new or enhanced sustainability content in core and elective courses.

This year, the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics introduced a required first-year MBA course, Business Fundamentals, to explore sustainable development, ethical management, cross-cultural management and diversity. New course electives are also planned for not-for-profit and municipal government managers to learn about environmental issues.

“It’s an easy sell,” says Rumina Dhalla, corporate social responsibility coordinator at Lang and coordinator of the MBA graduate program. “The MBA faculty members are very keen to be successful and make it interesting.”

Dhalla, who teaches organization studies and sustainable commerce in the Department of Management, also sees demand from two other sources. Students, she says, want to turn their two-year sustainable commerce degrees into “green” careers, while employers are hungry for graduates “with that value added” of sustainability.

Schools, though, take different approaches to teaching sustainability – a specialized track in some MBA programs and the centrepiece of others.

Next fall, the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria plans to introduce a 16-month MBA in sustainable innovation, replacing its current MBA.

Delivering content through an elective or specialization “is putting sustainability in a box,” argues David Dunne, director of Gustavson’s MBA programs. “You need to weave sustainability and technology and innovation into every course so that the finance professor is not teaching [students] how to make a million dollars but is teaching finance for impact and looking at how sustainable investment funds work.”

Despite sustainability’s rising profile, Warwick’s Dahlmann offers a word of caution. “There is a lot more noise now and more general talk about sustainability, but if you look at the numbers on global greenhouse gas emissions, we have a long way to go.”

Jennifer Lewington is a writer and editor on education and urban affairs.


Click here for 2019 Better World MBA Ranking results.



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