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B-Schools go-green, as sustainability takes centerstage

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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 resounding yes, emerged from a desire to further integrate the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the course content and extend cooperation with non-business scholars who are also interested in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues. The Corporate Knights Better World MBA Ranking for 2021 echoes that concept of going deep on curriculum and wide on research.

“The pandemic changed everything for me,” says Stephanie Schleimer, MBA director of Griffith Business School in Australia, which was ranked first in the top 40 Better World rankings for the second year in a row.  

Griffith’s professors spent the last year examining the Master of Business Administration’s core courses, which are already rich in sustainability subjects, to see what was missing in terms of the UN SDGs. For example, accounting became “accounting for accountability,” with students learning not just how to read a balance sheet but also how to value natural resources, such as water consumption.  

To confront global challenges whose answers are beyond the grasp of one field, the school extended collaboration with scholars from other universities. Concerns over climate issues prompted York University’s Schulich School of Business, the top Canadian entry and fourth overall in the top-40 list, to make sustainability one of eight core themes in the MBA program beginning in autumn 2022. Since the 1990s, sustainability electives and specializations have been available.  

“We’re at a tipping point in terms of acknowledging the emergency of environmental degradation,” says interim dean Detlev Zwick. “We are a business school, not an anti-capitalist organization; we need to be at the forefront of developing knowledge and techniques to save capitalism and the environment.”  

MBA students can take electives at York’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, allowing for cross-fertilization. Sustainability has risen in prominence, making it “the appropriate platform” for interdisciplinary study, according to Zwick, who points to recent faculty success in obtaining Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding on company performance in ESG themes.  

At Griffith University, business students take electives given by the university’s International Water Centre, and business academics take part in multi-pronged, multidisciplinary research on climate change, civic participation, and social impact.  

The University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business, ranked ninth this year and a frequent top-10 Better World performance for its Sustainable Innovation MBA (SIMBA), thrives on interdisciplinarity. According to SIMBA program director Caroline Hauser, three Grossman faculty members are fellows at the university’s Gund Institute for Environment, whose director lectures at the business school. Grossman recently hired a new professor specializing in corporate sustainability solutions that enhance value by addressing environmental issues.  

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 issues.” 

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