Determinants in Moving Business Schools toward Sustainability

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 2: May 2002  [Partnerships]

This paper was presented at ULSF’s consultation on “Assessing Progress Toward Sustainability in Higher Education,” which took place in Washington, DC in March 2001. This gathering explored the current status of sustainability in higher education and what hinders or enhances its emergence as a central academic concern in teaching, research, operations and outreach.

By Rick Bunch

World Resources Institute’s business education projects have been working since 1990 to ensure that environment and sustainability are fundamental components of business school curricula around the world. WRI’s BELL (Business-Environment Learning and Leadership) projects, in North and Latin America and China, develop and publish business school curricula, provide curriculum resources, facilitate faculty networking and offer training events and conferences for business school faculty and staff. The Environmental Enterprise Corps (EEC) offers business school students experiential learning opportunities helping green startup firms with their business development needs. The biennial report, Beyond Grey Pinstripes: Preparing MBAs for Social and Environmental Stewardship(produced jointly with the Initiative for Social Innovation through Business of The Aspen Institute) reports how leading business schools around the world infuse these issues to their curricula. The report highlights innovations, helps students find MBA programs that support their interests, and inspires competition among schools to do better.

Not surprisingly, we have found that sparking sustained change in business schools requires a systematic approach. In particular, we have learned to appreciate the various concerns, constraints and motivations of the various stakeholders in management education, and therefore how they might be mobilized to support program changes in the schools:

• Professors need to publish research in leading peer-reviewed journals. Secondarily, they need to receive good teaching ratings, and attract students to courses they offer;

• Students seek substantive knowledge, but especially at the MBA level they are motivated (or constrained) by professional concerns. They attend business school to advance their careers and command higher salaries;

• Deans and administrators want to place their graduates with prestigious employers who pay top dollar. Placement statistics figure heavily into national rankings, which help to attract better students, which helps to attract better employers, all in a virtuous circle;

• Employers want not only to attract top MBA graduates, but to retain them longer than one-year – the reported average for MBAs in their first job post-graduation.

This portrait is simplified here for the sake of brevity. Deans, for example, clearly care about the intellectual rigor of their degree programs, the research output of their faculty, and the stature of their school within the university and the community. The point here is that any effort to move a school’s programs toward sustainability depends on clear-eyed recognition of the various stakeholders, their interests and their leverage to effect or resist change.

Despite wide interest within the sustainability in higher education community in greening campus operations, WRI has never found much traction for this approach with graduate business schools. MBA students spend only parts of two years on campus, rarely form research associations with professors, typically have well-established lives and jobs separate from their academic pursuits, and nearly always live off campus. They take little interest in business schools as institutions worthy of examination perhaps because few of them aspire to work in academia, or even the non-profit sector, after they graduate. From this perspective, offering “crystallized curriculum” in the form of projects that green campus operations appeals little to MBAs because they perceive the experience will not impress the private sector employers they want eventually to work for. This observation is especially discouraging viewed in the context of the building boom that U.S. business schools have enjoyed in recent years. The new business schools are among the most impressive and expensive on most campuses, making an unmistakable statement about the school’s prestige and power: the same “cost-is-no-object” image many corporate headquarters seek to transmit. A concern with sustainability, scale and efficiency evidently plays as incompatible with these other, clearly dominant values.

The primary constraint on business school professors’ willingness to address sustainability in their teaching, research and outreach is ideology. Business people have much more credibility with business schools as advocates of sustainability than we do, and are increasingly visible champions for it, so WRI rarely proselytizes to the “unconverted.” For those professors who have committed themselves to infusing sustainability into their work, two constraints seem most important: limited publishing opportunities, and limited student interest.

Successful academic careers are built on publishing research in A-list, refereed journals. These journals tend to be fairly conservative and highly disciplinary in their requirements for submissions. Sustainabil-ity subjects are inherently interdisciplinary, and are often quickly disqualified from publication in these journals on scope grounds alone. Authors often submit such research to other journals, but it does them little professional good. Recently, this barrier has been circumvented by the publication of special editions of some of these journals thematically focused on sustainability (environmental management, etc.). While special editions provide publication opportunities, the papers they contain still seem significantly narrowed in vision by disciplinary boundaries.

Many professors who participate in the BELL network complain that electives they have offered examining sustainability subjects go undersubscribed by students and must often be dropped altogether. Students tend to take courses that maximize their career placement and advancement prospects: they know another finance elective will catch an employer’s attention, but they have much less confidence in the value of a sustainability elective. Sustainability plays best when infused into existing elective courses, rather than offered as a stand-alone subject. This strategy has stealth aspects, but in the end it provides students a framework for appreciating the value of sustainability as a fundamental component of any business pursuit. The greatest success with electives has been enjoyed at schools where sustainability has been infused throughout the core curriculum. The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill last year overhauled its capstone first-year-MBA-core strategy course to focus on sustainable development in business. Equipped with a framework for understanding sustainability as a business driver, this year almost half the second-year MBA class enrolled in a sustainable development and business elective.

For the same reason that publication opportunities are limited for business-and-sustainability research, academic disciplinary associations have generally offered scant support for their members who take an interest in sustainability. The BELL network was founded with the intention of providing these academics the chance to mingle, network, trade ideas and approaches, and learn from each other. BELL remains valuable today for its focus on pedagogy, which the disciplinary associations rarely address. Over time, some of the associations have granted grudging asylum to sustainability. Within the Academy of Management, for example, the Organizations in the Natural Environment (ONE) interest group attracts enthusiastic and growing participation. ONE has yet, however, to be granted status as a division of the Academy, and it must periodically be recertified to continue meeting under the Academy’s umbrella. At the least, ONE provides support for doctoral students studying sustainability, as well as conference presentation opportunities, which also bolster academic CVs.

WRI’s BELL projects historically focused on supply-side strategies – finding ways to help or persuade business schools to offer more sustainability content in their curricula. More and more businesses visibly struggle with environmental and sustainability challenges, providing the study of these issues a greater cover of legitimacy. Professors and students also find discussion of these issues in class to be lively and stimulating. The two main constraints on student interest appear to be the limited availability of “fresh” curriculum and uncertain career value of sustainability knowledge.

Top business schools rely to a varying but significant extent on the case teaching method. Owing to the perception that business conditions are constantly changing, professors and students are loath to use dated curriculum. This gives case studies a sharply limited shelf life – generally no more than five years. Keeping a subject well covered in the curriculum thus requires a steady flow of new case studies. Case studies generally arise from professor’s research projects, however, and to the extent that limited publication opportunities discourage research into sustainability in business, the flow of new teaching cases is likewise squeezed off. WRI addresses the curriculum shortage by publishing case studies, some written by WRI staff but most by academics at schools that do not publish and distribute cases. Still, there are too few good teaching cases available.

Aside from the case curriculum, few management textbooks address sustainability. Most that do are about ethics, public policy and regulatory topics, reinforcing the notion that sustainability represents a constraint on business and opportunity and is not a primary driver of business strategy. Annexes addressing sustainability have been prepared for several popular textbooks.

As discussed above, most MBA students have relatively well defined career objectives that shape their courses of study. Most companies are still struggling at a top-executive level with their response to sustainability, so these responsibilities are not yet deployed to the entry level and written into job qualifications and descriptions. Students consequently perceive little short-term value to studying sustainability. Lack of demand clearly cannot be addressed purely within academia. Some of the most successful business school programs have enjoyed limited success closing the gap between academia and the employers by creating advisory boards. Aside from keeping the curriculum fresh and relevant, boards for these programs accept placement of interns and graduates with their organizations as a primary duty.

Perceived lack of demand is due in part to poorly managed expectations concerning placement. Several “early mover” business school programs in environmental management were terminated because their graduates ended up either in positions outside the MBA job mainstream – often with lower pay – or took typical MBA jobs with no superficially evident environmental responsibilities. Environmental divisions of companies rarely if ever hire MBAs, nor do environmental MBAs wish to change that fact. They seek instead to integrate environmental thinking into standard managerial responsibilities. Deans and program directors, however, noting lower salaries or job titles that don’t sound green, conclude that these programs add little value. A recent trend among schools to label these programs “sustainable enterprise” addresses the semantic difficulty; but of course we have yet to see job listings for “sustainability managers” in but a few outlier firms. A vexing but important determinant of success, then, is managing the expectations of school decision makers about the placement prospects of students who study sustainability.

WRI recently started a practicum program for MBAs called Environmental Enterprise Corps. EEC matches professor-supervised student teams with startup firms that have passed social and environmental screens, but that need business development assistance of they are to attract investors. In addition to the intriguing sustainability profiles of these firms, they offer two additional inducements to students: international experience (client firms are in Latin America) and entrepreneurship experience (a red-hot business school topic). EEC shows students the practical applications of their classroom discussions about environment and sustainability in business, and helps overcome the suspicion that no jobs are to be had that require sustainability knowledge. The determinant of success or failure with MBA students, then, is the existence of a persuasive case that sustainability knowledge will improve their career prospects. A recent two-year WRI study of MBA students in the Net Impact (formerly Students for Responsible Business) club found that not a single respondent placed greater importance on finding a job with sustainability responsibilities after their second year of business school than before it. Business school culture may have shifted their values, but one suspects that the dearth of employment opportunities requiring sustainability knowledge played the major role in shuffling their job search priorities.

Deans and other administrators
Deans strive to maximize the resources available to their schools, in order to attract the best students, top faculty, and most prestigious employers. Executive programs, research agreements and charitable gifts are the resource flows they can most easily affect. All three depend heavily on the school’s prestige, represented most vividly by its Business Week or US News ranking. Any opportunity to influence how a school compares to its perceived peer institutions offers us some leverage. This competitiveness has made the biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes reports an especially effective tool. Schools that have placed highly in the report’s ratings experience a surge in student interest and favorable media attention; laggards understand that they are ignoring an important trend in business, and learn about innovative approaches they can adopt themselves. The determinant of success or failure here, then, is the perception that a school’s achievements or shortcomings with respect to sustainability can put bread on the table – or take it away. This perception is sharpening as gifts to business schools on the sustainability theme are rapidly escalating. Two top-25 environmental/sustainability programs have landed eight-figure endowments in the past two years, and at least five top-25 schools are now, or will soon be, recruiting for endowed chairs in some variation of “sustainable enterprise.”

CEOs frequently proclaim such nostrums as, “Our people are our most important asset.” Operationally, the idea of greening the supply chain has taken a firm hold. Why, then, do companies ignore the opportunity to green the supply chain for their “most important asset” by selecting new employees who understand sustainability?

Many executives we have spoken with profess hesitation to tell educators how to do their job. Yet customers frequently communicate product quality and function expectations to producers, without trying to tell them how to operate their factories. If businesses are the most important customers of business schools – literally, the purchasers via employment of the schools’ chief product, MBAs – why do they not at least include sustainability specifications in the job descriptions they post, and evaluate candidates’ sustainability knowledge during the recruitment process? There are many answers, boiling down to the observation that change comes slowly. The challenge for those business schools that are offering a cutting edge, sustainability product, unfortunately, is that it’s hard to continue making a product nobody wants to buy.

Change Agents
Researching WRI’s biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes report, we have learned that successful programs in business schools depend on the efforts of dedicated, secure change agents inside and outside of the organization. It is important to gain the imprimatur of the dean, but rarely are deans able to dedicate their attention to one subject enough to be effective change agents. We have also observed several programs led by highly dedicated energetic junior faculty without full support and engagement of the deans or department chairs. Without top support, these faculty are less likely to earn tenure, and when they depart the school their program withers on the vine. Who can be both dedicated to sustainability and secure enough to invest their career in it? Senior, tenured faculty seem to be most effective in this role.

Outside change agents are also indispensable to sustainability efforts. Businesses and business people lend critical legitimacy to sustainability in business education, but rarely are they focused enough to drive change. Organizations such as ULSF, NWF, Second Nature and WRI, free of the bureaucratic, cultural, political and financial strictures of academia, have proven to be key elements for change.

We sometimes reduce the complex system of actors and forces in business education to the simple economic dynamics of supply and demand. This analogy certainly strikes a resonant chord with business school people, but like any analogy it can be deceptive. Business schools are not monolithic: deans, program staff, faculty, students and others all have different motivations and abilities to act on them. Nor can business schools accurately be described simply as the supply side of the market. They are one, complicated link in an extended education supply chain. Success or failure of our efforts depends on the fullest appreciation of how that supply chain works.

Rick Bunch is Business Education Director for the Sustainable Enterprise Program at World Resources Institute, 10 G St NE, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20002 USA;; T: 202/729-7670; F: 202-729-7637;

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