A Path to Authenticity and Purpose

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021
By Rumina Dhalla
Photo by iStock/mikkelwilliam
How one school made sustainability an integral part of its mission and global reputation.

Society is now compelling businesses across all industries to demonstrate not only strong financial performance, but also societal impact and environmental stewardship. It is no longer enough for them to embrace the “first, do no harm” mindset often associated with the medical community. Rather, businesses are expected to be engaged and responsible partners with those tackling global issues such as climate change, poverty, and racism.  

More business leaders are addressing sustainability issues not only to follow their ethical convictions, but also to help their organizations cut costs, gain reputation, and achieve sustained competitive advantage in their markets. As future leaders, our business students, too, are interested in developing expertise in sustainable business practices.

All of this is placing pressure on business schools to make sustainability a part of their missions. Endowments and other funding sources are beginning to assess higher education institutions on sustainability and social impact dimensions. Even high-profile rankings organizations are incorporating criteria related to sustainability. These include Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings, which map universities’ performance against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and the Corporate Knights Better World MBA Rankings, which assess individual MBA programs on their accomplishments related to sustainability.

Academic leaders are responding to these pressures by looking for ways to make sustainability an integral part of the purpose of their institutions. To provide one source of inspiration, we wanted to share our experience at the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics in Ontario, Canada. We have adopted the specific multifaceted strategies and actions outlined below to integrate sustainability into our research and programming. The key to success, we have found, is to embrace sustainability in ways that leverage our strengths, create sustainable value for our stakeholders, and are authentic to our school’s mission.

1. Finding Faculty Champions

Finding champions who will drive change is vital for any business school to achieve its sustainability transformation. For example, I led the development of our new MBA in Sustainable Commerce, whose launch and subsequent success crystallized our journey. This stream of our MBA, which targets working professionals, helps students better understand the strategic and operational side of sustainability. They learn how sustainability can be integrated into business practices across industries and how to inspire organizations to address critical issues such as climate change, poverty, racism, social justice, and environmental governance. This program now attracts over two-thirds of all applicants to our MBA programs.

Similarly, as part of their first-year curriculum, our undergraduates work on the Great Ethical Dilemma Case during a course created and led by another of our champions, assistant professor Kathleen Rodenburg. Throughout the semester, students work in teams to study ethical dilemmas faced by publicly traded companies. At the end of the semester, the students take part in a case competition in which they have just 36 hours to develop solutions to a real-world ethical dilemma, before presenting their ideas to a panel of executives.

This unusual first-year course truly reflects our active learning approach, and it sets the tone for the rest of our students’ undergraduate experience. Rodenburg has created a course that isn’t just critical to establishing the importance of sustainability to our students. It also demonstrates to them that sustainability is part of our essence, our purpose, and our identity.

2. Letting Students Take the Lead

Giving students the opportunity to lead initiatives and supporting them in that process are critical ways for us to highlight the importance of sustainability. For example, since 2019, the Lang Student Association has organized an annual sustainability conference, which invites students across Canada to participate. The inaugural conference brought more than 70 delegates to campus, while the second conference had more than 120 delegates. The next one is planned for January 2022. With the guidance and support from our faculty and our Institute for Sustainable Commerce, LSA members plan the program, locate and confirm speakers, issue invitations, seek out funding, and find high-profile judges.

Giving students the opportunity to lead initiatives and supporting them in that process are critical ways for us to highlight the importance of sustainability.

One tangible outcome from the 2019 in-person event was the Conference Report. Produced by the LSA, this report highlighted all the sustainable elements incorporated into the conference. Organizers now can use this document as a guide to help us reduce our carbon footprint and waste for our future in-person events. While this project is a valuable active learning experience for students, it also raises students’ awareness of opportunities for sustainability-focused careers at influential organizations.

3. Raising Our External Visibility

The more we can amplify our visibility and reputation with internal and external stakeholders, the more we can deepen our impact and fortify our sustainability identity. We do this in three primary ways:

Accreditation. We view it as essential to seek accreditation with influential and reputable global academic accreditation bodies that exemplify sustainability. For example, AACSB’s vision “to transform business education globally for positive societal impact” is the very essence of what Lang is working to accomplish. We recently earned AACSB accreditation, which serves as a signal of our commitment to societal impact and sustainability.

Sustainability-focused rankings. Our MBA in Sustainable Commerce was recently ranked highly by the Corporate Knights in its 2021 Better World MBA. This has had a threefold advantage: It generates excitement within our school, solidifies our reputation in sustainability, and validates the importance and impact of our sustainability mission.

Global networks. We also work to play a leadership role in global higher education. For instance, we are a Champion of the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME). As director of the Institute of Sustainable Commerce, I have assumed leadership roles as vice-chair of the PRME North American Chapter, board chair for the U.N. Global Compact Network Canada, and a guardian of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI). These activities make us part of a global network of like-minded business schools and businesses, enhancing opportunities for collaboration for research, learning, and partnerships.

4. Reaffirming Our Internal Identity

When trying to make sustainability a part of their identities, schools might invest in internal actions such as reworking their visions, missions, and values or hiring consultants to help them rebrand. While these actions are important, business schools can achieve truly impactful transformation only by deeply examining all their internal processes and integrating sustainability in all activities. They must make sustainability an essential part of their DNA. Anything less will likely be perceived as greenwashing.

There are several factors for business school leaders to consider as they undertake this examination:

Promotions and appointments. It is critical to hire faculty (and enroll graduate students) whose research interests are aligned with the school’s sustainability vision. Even more important, schools should appoint leaders who will adopt strategies and allocate resources in ways that demonstrate their full commitment to the school’s sustainability transformation. Advisory board appointments should be given similar consideration. When schools select leaders and advisors who exemplify sustainability through their expertise and reputations, they send a strong signal of their priorities to external stakeholders.

A comprehensive audit of practices. A sustainability audit can be a powerful way for schools to drive their sustainability strategies, highlight any gaps in their operations and programs, and identify best practices. It might include examining environmental factors such as resource consumption, waste generation and disposal, and carbon footprint, as well as social factors such as governance policies and diversity and inclusion strategies.

It is important to include all internal stakeholders in this process. In this way, schools can discover innovative solutions that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and increase the community’s commitment to the sustainability mission.

Schools can achieve truly impactful transformation only by making sustainability an essential part of their DNA. Anything less will likely be perceived as greenwashing.

Sustainability frameworks and metrics. It is beneficial for schools to use an existing robust global framework to drive their transformation. AACSB’s 2020 Guiding Principles and Standards for Business Accreditation, for example, provide schools with clear guidelines for encouraging research, teaching, and extracurricular activities focused on sustainability; assessing progress; and measuring the impact of research.

The U.N.’s 17 SDGs are another useful framework that schools can use to identify potential gaps, assess strengths, and reveal areas that might need revision. Schools also could leverage existing expertise on campus related to particular SDGs, collaborate with other faculties or centers or campus, or engage with potential industry partners for research and active learning. 

Centers and institutes. To institutionalize a sustainability strategy, academic leaders can establish formal institutes or centers that will serve as hubs that support student learning, bring together experts to generate sustainability research, and strengthen their schools’ reputations for promoting sustainable business practices. At the Lang School, we recently established the Institute of Sustainable Commerce at Guelph (ISCG) as a way to ensure that sustainability and collaboration permeate our research and teaching. As its director, I help support and advance research, learning, engagement, and inclusive collaboration around business sustainability and the SDGs.

Through the ISCG, our school provides seed funding for collaborative research on sustainability. We also have launched a small grant program intended to help scholars in the early stages of research, and we guide them as they apply for larger grants to fund their work. We design course content and co-curricular activities, as well as collaborate with other business schools to co-create course content.

5. Looking Forward With an Eye on Collaboration

If business schools are to deliver education that supports responsible business practices, we can no longer view competition with other schools as a viable strategy. Instead we must be willing to share intellectual property, propriety knowledge, and course programming with each other. We must collaborate across disciplines, institutions, and nations; we must engage meaningfully with influential stakeholders such as businesses, regulators, policymakers, and NGOs on research and learning activities. Only then will business education benefit a wider audience and achieve a greater impact.

Adopting such a spirit of collaboration is especially exciting now, as we move our programming into virtual environments. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has made geographical and institutional boundaries far more fluid than they have ever been before.

The Influential Role of Business Schools

Students, faculty, businesses, governments, and the global community are increasingly calling for the widespread adoption of sustainable practices, and business schools are in a strong position to promote these practices through their research, education, and engagement. We hope that our ongoing journey at the Lang School will inspire other schools in their own sustainability-related transformations.

Rumina Dhalla
Associate Professor and Director, Institute for Sustainable Commerce, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, University of Guelph
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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