The State of Sustainability in Management Education—Challenges and Opportunities

Article Icon Article
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
By Giselle Weybrecht

Business schools are increasingly engaging, and are expected to lead, in the embedding of sustainability into business culture through the education and training of today’s and tomorrow’s business leaders.

Business schools are increasingly engaging, and are expected to lead, in the embedding of sustainability into business culture through the education and training of today’s and tomorrow’s business leaders. However, this effort isn’t proving to be as easy as one would think, or hope. Business schools are incredibly complex environments that represent a dynamic, constantly changing field, yet have a lot of inertia when it comes to change themselves. This paradox makes it difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, for them to keep up with the latest business practices, regardless of how important or necessary change is needed. A common belief is that, since management education has done just fine for this long, why do anything differently?

So Where Are We Today?

Traditionally shareholder value maximization has been presented at the center of a siloed curriculum with ethics and social issues sitting around the edges. This configuration largely sends the message to students to separate themselves and society from their business decisions. Although many schools still maintain this approach to management, a growing number are questioning it. Many factors have influenced the recent re-evaluation, but two groups in particular stand out. Students are not only requesting but are driving the process of transformation with the schools, and businesses themselves, who are taking these topics more seriously, are sending more consistent messages to business schools about their importance.

But despite increases in strong messages surrounding sustainability coming from all sides—students, alumni, business, and others—business schools are still surprisingly slow to change and adapt to this new business reality. For many, it still remains a checklist; a lecture here, an elective there, a student club, maybe a research center, and they have thus fulfilled their obligations to their students and society. Despite the fact that today’s students have a better understanding of sustainability compared to their predecessors, it is still often perceived as a separate topic, disconnected from the key messages being taught in the core of a business degree where often sustainability isn’t mentioned or is even dismissed. Most students can still go through their degree with very little exposure to sustainability at all, and what little exposure they do receive is often not presented in a way that is relevant to or useful for their future careers.

So How Do We Change That?

Depending on whom you ask, everyone has a different answer as to whose responsibility it is to change the business school as we’ve known it. Fingers are often pointed at faculty, where, despite a growing number of individual faculty who are extremely committed and passionate about sustainability, they are still very much a minority. However, faculty themselves are working within a system that by and large does not facilitate their engagement in this topic. Most remain unconvinced or are unfamiliar with sustainability and how it relates to the courses they teach or to their research. The word “sustainability” has so many different meanings that it is quickly disregarded as ethics or philanthropy or something covered in someone else’s class.

In part this perception relates back to how faculty are selected and rewarded in the first place: research. The academic journals with the highest impact for researchers are not publishing enough on this topic, while the journals that are focused on sustainability aren’t seen to be important enough. Not only is much of the research faculty are doing in the area of sustainability unrelated or unconnected to current business practioners’ interests in this area, but it is also not presented in a way that can be used by practioners in the first place. Working to engage faculty in creating more impactful and relevant research and using business schools as platforms to explore solutions to current and future sustainability solutions should be a priority.

"Despite growing student interest in sustainability, a large number see it as a separate concept that does not relate to their career options post-graduation."

Many business schools live and breathe by their rankings, as rankings play a significant role in a student’s choice of which school to attend and influence many decisions made strategically within schools related to program, curriculum, and so on. The most respected rankings don’t consider sustainability, or consider only aspects of it, and sustainability-focused rankings are often limited in scope. Better integration of sustainability into current well-respected rankings would incentivize schools to change.

Other key players in the sustainability game when it comes to business schools are the recruiters. Despite growing student interest in sustainability, a large number see it as a separate concept that does not relate to their career options post-graduation, despite the fact that many businesses claim that sustainability is becoming increasingly integrated into all jobs and positions. Many companies admit that although sustainability is an important part of their company’s strategy, their recruiters aren’t engaged enough in communicating consistent messages throughout the recruiting process in this regard. It is one thing for business schools to develop capable, future-oriented leaders, but it’s another thing for recruiters to be able to identify, seek out, and build capacity that places a value in this area.

Then of course there is accreditation, which plays a key role as schools put significant resources into embedding these standards across their schools. AACSB has made significant strides in integrating sustainability into its accreditation standards. Robust accreditation standards that put sustainability front and center can have a significant impact on schools moving forward.

So Now What?

The slow adoption of sustainability into business schools cannot be attributed to any one group. Progress is being made and a growing number of schools are taking sustainability seriously, embedding it across their curriculum, engaging their faculty, and integrating it into their strategy and operations.

However, this should be the case with all business schools. Professionals in the sustainability field regularly recognize the challenges that exists and that something needs to change, but that change doesn’t happen, or it happens so slowly that the business sector sits there watching, possibly wondering what role business schools will play in the future.

Many business schools know this change must occur but perhaps need to be reminded of it regularly. Graduates and the schools they graduate from have a significant influence on the way the world works beyond just business. Inspirational quotes will tell us that one person can change the world, and they can when they are a leader or manager influencing a team of individuals or a whole company. In the same way, decisions AACSB schools make in the way they embed these crucial business topics influence thousands of leaders. This shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The good news—and there is a lot of it—is that there are several places to turn to for inspiration as to what is possible and what impact those possibilities can have on your students, your reputation, and your ability to develop meaningful partnerships with business and to recruit new students and faculty. The Principles for Responsible Management and the Global Compact provide just a snapshot of the many schools and companies engaging in sustainability, as well as countless sources of inspiration for new and innovative ideas on how to make it happen. These schools and companies are working past the challenges and exploring themselves how they can become agents of change, preparing new generations to think differently about the role of business in society.

For more on the State of Sustainability in Management Education, visit the Principles for Responsible Management Education and the Global Compact paper on this topic launched at the PRME Global Forum in June 2015.

Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker in the areas of sustainability and business. Her bestselling book, The Sustainable MBA: A Business Guide to Sustainability, is based on over 150 interviews with experts in business, international organizations, NGOs, and universities from around the world, bringing together all the pieces of the business and sustainability puzzle in an easy-to-understand format. Weybrecht presented a TEDx Talk, "How to Make Anything More Sustainable." She is on Twitter @gweybrecht.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.