Integrated Approaches to Teaching Sustainability

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022
By Marco De Novellis
Photo by iStock/Sansert Sangsakawrat
No longer a buzzword, sustainability has become a critical component of today’s business education. How are schools teaching it, and what more can they do?
  • Three schools have taken different approaches to teaching sustainability, integrating components like an ESG focus, sustainable building design, and interdisciplinary partnerships.
  • Business schools will need to overcome challenges of resources and mindsets if they are to truly advance sustainability as a discipline.
  • Efforts to incorporate sustainability throughout programming can help change business school culture longer term.

When the global financial crisis hit, Stephanie Schleimer and her fellow academics at Australia’s Griffith University sprang into action.

They felt that business schools, at the time, had contributed to the financial crash. Shareholder-centric MBA programs, designed for white-collar executives and centered on revenue growth, were encouraging business leaders to recklessly pursue profit.

Slowly, but intentionally, Schleimer and her colleagues overhauled the Griffith University MBA, transforming it into a program with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core.

Today, Schleimer leads a program ranked first globally for sustainability in the Better World MBA ranking produced by media firm Corporate Knights. To develop an MBA degree the school could market as championing purpose over profit, the school needed to discard some business education conventions, including traditional textbooks and outdated theories.

While there are other challenges for schools, like finding faculty with sustainability expertise and being enmeshed in a rankings system that still largely favors a traditional approach, more business schools today are ramping up their focus on sustainability.

Integrating Sustainability: 3 Case Studies

Case 1: Griffith University

The Griffith University MBA is based on three core values that touch on all 17 SDGs—responsible leadership (spanning SDGs 1–10), sustainable business practices (SDGs 11–15), and collaboration and partnerships across the Asia Pacific region (SDGs 16–17).

The degree has no majors. Although students can choose from electives, everything is taught through an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) lens, with sustainability integrated across the curriculum.

 “We’re trying to go beyond traditional business education, to focus on sustainability in everything we practice, teach, and assess.” —Stephanie Schleimer

In strategy classes, students learn to consider an organization’s impact on the local community and the environment. In accounting, they learn to account for the use of natural resources.

“As a young, aspiring academic during the financial crisis, I felt ashamed,” Schleimer recalls. “We’re now trying to go beyond traditional business education, to focus on sustainability in everything we practice, teach, and assess, and to make students rethink their understanding of how business works.”

For Griffith University, the building blocks for a sustainability-centered MBA include:

  • Abandoning textbooks. The school stopped using outdated textbooks that had no references to ESG. And when traditional strategy models are studied, they are questioned and scrutinized.
  • Recruiting expert instructors. The school recruited faculty with expertise in sustainability as well as practitioners from industry. For example, experts from the International Water Management Institute teach students how to account for water usage in the accounting course.
  • Integrating sustainability across the curriculum. Sustainability isn’t confined to one course but is the foundation of the program.
  • Involving the community. Courses and student competitions are also steered by nonprofit and social enterprise leaders.
  • Taking an interdisciplinary approach. The school taps into the research strengths of faculty from across the university to infuse their expertise into the MBA curriculum.

Since reinventing its MBA, Griffith University has increased its intake of MBA and graduate certificate students from 200 in 2015 to 700 in 2022. According to the school, around 90 percent of alumni say the program has changed the way they think about business; 30 percent switch into values-based careers after graduation.

Case 2: University of North Carolina (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School is increasing the focus on sustainability for its MBA program, dedicating even more credit hours to its long-standing concentration. Courses will cover topics like ESG investing, gender in the workplace, and accounting for climate change.

The concentration is taught using a variety of learning approaches:

  • Sustainability-focused case studies on how Clorox and Walmart went green and on greenwashing.
  • Company visits to the likes of UNIFI, which makes clothing material from plastic bottles, and Burt’s Bees, a natural skincare company with a zero-waste policy.
  • International trip to Iceland where students learn on the ground from companies innovating in the sustainability space.
  • Business simulation where students take on the role of company managers responding to climate-related challenges.

Students can also take part in UNC’s annual Invest for Impact Competition, where they work as impact investors, finding, interviewing, and assessing the business plans of real-life, impact-focused entrepreneurs currently seeking funding.

Beyond the MBA concentration, Kenan-Flagler is implementing sustainability across its courses, backed by its sustainability center, recently renamed the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability (ACES) after an 11 million USD gift from the late real estate tycoon and alum Charles S. Ackerman.

“Because sustainability can cut across many functions in an organization, each student’s career path is very individual.” —Olga Hawn

The endowed gift will support sustainability-focused MBA fellowships, expanded offerings in the undergraduate business program, and the center’s move to a new building, set to open in 2024 and designed to achieve the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating for sustainability.

Olga Hawn, associate professor for strategy and entrepreneurship and the ACES faculty director, explains that Kenan-Flagler’s sustainability strategy is focused on three core pillars: curriculum, research, and careers. The donation, she says, will also increase research capacity by supporting PhD and other graduate students to become sustainability fellows.

“With our approach of starting internship programs with students who research questions coming from industry, they become specialists in that area, and that’s been helpful for them when it comes to interviewing for jobs.

“Because sustainability can cut across many functions in an organization, each student’s career path is very individual. We take a lot of time to help them figure out which classes to take to follow that path.”

For schools looking to incorporate sustainability into their programs, Hawn points to the U.N.’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), where faculty can find teaching principles, resources, and an active community to learn from and engage with.

Case 3: SDA Bocconi School of Management

Gianmario Verona, professor of management and rector of Italy’s Bocconi University, says the school is continually reviewing its course curriculum to inject more focus on sustainability.

Stefano Pogutz, a sustainability expert who launched a specialized sustainability master’s at Bocconi over a decade ago, was intentionally hired as the new director of the SDA Bocconi MBA in late 2021.

The program targets “triple A” candidates who have the aspiration to change their lives with an MBA, the ambition to have a positive impact on society, and an awareness of the social and environmental responsibility they have as future business leaders.

Bocconi University is also launching a new MSc in Transformative Sustainability this year, a two-year joint degree delivered in partnership with engineering university Politecnico di Milano. The program is designed to train professionals with the skills they need to effect sustainable change within an organization.

Combining technical skills and social sciences, the curriculum covers the technologies, systems, and processes used to drive sustainable change, as well as the influence of ESG criteria on an organization’s governance, management, and financial decisions.

“Sustainability challenges can’t be solved by just an economist or a technician.” —Gianmario Verona

The master’s program will prepare students to become multidisciplinary experts who can challenge and rethink traditional business models, suited for such roles as sustainability specialists, analysts, or entrepreneurs.

“Sustainability challenges can’t be solved by just an economist or a technician,” Verona explains. “[Integrating sustainability] is about case studies; debating the issue; hiring professors; and creating interdisciplinary research, projects, and programs.”

Sustainability Challenges and Opportunities

The days of paying lip service to sustainability are over. Sustainability is a broad field, relevant to all 17 SDGs, and business schools should ensure that every course integrates sustainability in order to create well-rounded leaders who can create sustainable change.

To do so, schools don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They can tap into sustainability research centers or initiatives across the wider university for more resources. They can overcome faculty recruitment challenges by partnering with other institutions and community organizations and hiring adjunct faculty from industry.

Sacrifices may need to be made in terms of rankings. Some major MBA-ranking providers have integrated a focus on sustainability into their methodologies in recent years. However, metrics like post-MBA salary, which are better suited to schools with strong placement records in high-paying industries like finance and consulting, still hold the greatest weight.

Sacrifices may need to be made in terms of rankings.

The Financial Times salary metrics account for 40 percent of the overall ranking, while its ESG metric accounts for just 3 percent.

But schools shouldn’t see rankings as a stumbling block. Salaries for sustainability jobs are increasing, and sustainability knowledge is likely to be looked upon favorably by employers across industries. Accreditation bodies also pay great attention sustainability—AACSB’s 2020 business accreditation standards have an increased focus on diversity and inclusion as well as societal impact.

While Griffith University’s model is not suited for success in traditional international rankings tables, and its students are mostly domestic, by differentiating, the school has increased demand and attracted new groups of candidates whose motivations align with those of the incoming Generation Z.

The Griffith University MBA suite now hosts students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds whose experience spans 100 different industries. Its proportion of enrolled women has increased to 59 percent. These changes reflect a needed departure from tradition.

From leadership to faculty and student clubs to campus building designs, schools need to work from the top down and the bottom up to create a sustainability culture and drive change.

That culture, Hawn notes, is the hardest element to figure out. But once culture is set, the sky’s the limit.

“We see so much potential. I’m excited that sustainability has made it to the mainstream, companies are pushing for this change, and there’s a lot of demand for these skills in the jobs market.”

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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