The world's most sustainable MBAs think global and teach local

Pandemic pushes top business schools to look beyond siloed departments on sustainability

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic prodded some business schools to ask themselves an uncomfortable question: can we strengthen our teaching and research on sustainability?

The answer, a strong yes, took shape with a willingness to further embed the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into course content and expand collaborations with non-business researchers also interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. That strategy to go deep on curriculum and wide on research is a theme that resonates through the 2021 Corporate Knights Better World MBA Ranking.

“The pandemic, for me, changed everything,” says Stephanie Schleimer, MBA director of Australia’s Griffith Business School, which took top spot in this year’s top-40 Better World ranking for the second year in a row. She adds: “It was this global awareness, for the very first time, that we are fragile as a society and [however] anyone would like to argue about COVID, in the end it is related to our fault as a society and our relationship with our planet and our natural environment and species.”

In the past year, Griffith faculty analyzed the Master of Business Administration’s core courses, already rich in sustainability topics, probing what was missing relative to the UN SDGs. Accounting, for example, became “accounting for accountability,” with students taught to read a balance sheet, as usual, but also how to value natural resources, including water consumption.

The school expanded collaboration with academics from other faculties to address global crises whose solutions are beyond the reach of one discipline.

In 2020, the school also almost doubled the number of publications on sustainability and ESG compared to a year earlier.

At York University’s Schulich School of Business, the top Canadian entry and fourth overall in the top-40 list, mounting concern about the climate crisis led to a decision to elevate sustainability as one of eight core areas in the MBA, starting fall 2022. Sustainability electives and specializations have been offered since the 1990s.

“We are looking at a watershed moment as far as recognition of the emergency of environmental degradation,” says interim dean Detlev Zwick. “We are a business school, and we are not advocating an end to capitalism; we need to be at the forefront of developing knowledge and approaches to save capitalism and the environment.”

With designated space now allocated for them, sustainability-conscious professors in real estate, ethics and other subjects work alongside each other at the school. “There is going to be very interdisciplinary work done and hopefully a lot of outreach to other faculty where similar questions are asked with a different lens,” says Zwick.

Cross-fertilization opportunities extend to MBA students who can take electives at York’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. With its raised profile, sustainability becomes “the right platform” to expand interdisciplinary research, says Zwick, noting recent faculty success in landing Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grants on corporate performance in ESG topics.

A similar pattern of collaboration applies at Griffith, where business students take electives offered through the university’s International Water Centre and business professors participate in multi-pronged, interdisciplinary research on climate change, civic engagement and social impact.

Interdisciplinarity comes naturally to the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business, eighth this year and a consistent top-10 Better World performer for its Sustainable Innovation MBA (SIMBA). Three Grossman faculty members are fellows at the university’s Gund Institute for Environment, whose director lectures in the business school, says SIMBA program director Caroline Hauser. Grossman recently hired a new faculty member with expertise in corporate sustainability strategies that add value by solving environmental problems.

We are looking at a watershed moment as far as recognition of the emergency of environmental degradation.

—Detlev Zwick, interim dean, Schulich School of Business

This fall, the SIMBA program enrolled 47 students, the largest cohort in its eight-year history. Over the past year, the school added a course in data analytics tailored for sustainable businesses and, given the Black Lives Matter awakening, integrated identity themes into a course on leadership and teamwork.

“Since business schools started, being a leader has been defined in one specific way: the straight white male archetype,” says Hauser. “It’s really important to expand your idea of what a leader looks like.”

Meanwhile, recent program accreditation changes promote the enrichment of ESG content and cross-disciplinary cooperation. In 2020, AACSB International, a global accrediting body for business schools, identified societal impact in four of nine accreditation standards, with schools encouraged to “demonstrate how their programs, faculty, and learners will innovate to positively impact society,” president and CEO Caryn Beck-Dudley stated in an email.

For Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen, in ninth place in the top-40 list, doubling down on sustainability and SDG commitments is a top priority. School leaders spent the past two years assessing MBA content for coverage of corporate social responsibility and sustainability themes, concluding that they were fully incorporated in some courses but not in others. The refreshed MBA, set for fall 2022, now links to the UN’s SDGs.

Recently arrived MBA director Amanda Shantz, from Grimsby, Ontario, aims to build on the renewal. “What I would like to do is be a little bit more proactive when it comes to threading sustainability through the curriculum,” says Shantz, also noting the importance of gender, diversity and inclusion. “We have a really great opportunity to make change happen in business school.”

Institutionally committed to SDG principles, St. Gallen is home to more than 30 independent research institutes and centres that draw on various disciplines. Between 2015 and 2019, says Shantz, 87% of faculty journal articles were SDG-related.

It’s really important to expand your idea of what a leader looks like beyond the straight white male archetype.

—Caroline Hauser, MBA program director, Grossman School of Business

Earlier this year, young academics at St. Gallen added momentum by establishing an “impact scholars’ community” to pursue multidisciplinary research related to the UN SDGs. “They want to create synergies across institutes and strengthen the collaborative research culture,” says Shantz.

Some schools actively encourage academics to escape discipline silos. The Netherlands’ Maastricht University School of Business and Economics identifies sustainability as one of three research priorities through 2025, with modest incentives (funding to host a conference or reduced teaching loads) for professors who look beyond their discipline.

The recent incorporation of two institutes on sustainability and governance into the school supports its ambition to deliver impact on global issues, says MBA director Boris Blumberg.

“Of course, [sustainability] problems are complex, the solutions are not clear, [as] there are many opinions,” he says. “And that is exactly what universities and business schools are there for: to put their energy into getting ideas on how to solve those complex problems.”

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

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