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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sep/Oct 2007 : Cover Story

Building

Greening the MBA
Some universities are beginning to choose sustainable education over rankings.

by David Wheeler

Two years ago, I sat in an audience of 200 business students watching a special screening of “The Corporation”—a depressing and somewhat disempowering documentary based on a book written by Canadian law professor Joel Bakan called Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

After a desultory panel discussion, one of the students stood up and asked why—in his entire time at business school—he had never heard the issues discussed in the movie raised in the classroom. He wanted to know if his school might learn from other institutions how to incorporate social and environmental content into the business curricula.

After spending the previous five years trying to do exactly that as a teacher in the same business school attended by the student, I was a little disappointed by the question. This school regularly ranked in the top few schools globally on its inclusion of sustainability and corporate social responsibility in the MBA program.

Fast-forward to summer 2007: I am visiting a friend who teaches at a top U.S. school also known for its world-leading embrace of sustainability and social responsibility at the MBA level. This senior academic described to me how the vast majority of MBA candidates sail through their programs en route to well-paid careers in consulting and finance, untouched by broader questions of the environmental and social impacts of business. He also told how the senior champion for these issues at his school struggles to overcome a credibility problem with his mainstream colleagues.

These two schools may be separated by the 49th parallel, but they’re united in the same paradigmatic dilemma: What the marketplace for general MBAs really wants are graduates that deliver financial results. Forget all the studies that demonstrate the business benefits of stakeholder strategies and the speeches of CEOs extolling the virtues of sustainable business practices—when it comes to hiring general MBAs, it is still the single bottom line that matters most. If this is true for the supposed leaders in business and sustainability education, it is certainly the case for the vast majority of schools who make no such claim.

The MBA Rankings Game
Since 1998, MBA programs have been ranked by U.S. think tanks for their environmental social content. The World Resources Institute (WRI) started this ranking when it released its report, Grey Pinstripes with Green Ties:  MBA Programs Where the Environment Matters. This report showed that 37 out of 50 U.S. business schools surveyed had some form of environmental content in their curricula. When the Aspen Institute partnered with WRI to broaden the scope of its biannual survey to include social and non-profit management issues, just 15.4 percent of 490 MBA programs worldwide responded. Just 31 schools emerged as schools to be celebrated for their environmental education. Nineteen of these were U.S. schools, six were European, four were Canadian and two were from the rest of the world (Mexico and the Philippines). As this article goes to press, the results of the 2007 rankings are eagerly awaited.

However, business school rankings are notorious for their susceptibility to methodological and systemic biases. Kai Peters, CEO of the Ashridge Business School in the United Kingdom, summarized these critiques in an article published by the Journal of Management Development. Peters acknowledges the socially constructed nature of rankings and suggests that they are part of the dynamics by which society speaks to institutions.

“The criteria upon which the rankings are based will continue to change, and deans and marketing directors will continue to search, in vain, for a proactive strategy in the marketplace of rankings,” he wrote. “That said, research indicates that it is better to ‘play the game’ than to boycott the rankings as bad publicity is better than no publicity.”

If rankings are here to stay, perhaps Beyond Grey Pinstripes will continue to produce a socially responsible version of the “observer effect.” The more that deans are asked to complete Aspen Institute surveys, the more they will articulate a green and socially aware vision for their MBA programs. Certainly it is no longer especially rare to see business school deans saluting the flag of corporate social responsibility and the importance of subjects like ethics in the curriculum. Of course “bad apples” at companies like Enron, Tyco and WorldCom have all had their part to play in this new sensitivity. And there is no doubt that steadily increasing numbers of business professors are entering the game from nearly all disciplines.

Yet, there is a danger that a well-articulated case for the inclusion of social and environmental issues in general MBA curricula may mask a rather unpleasant truth. Despite the decanal rhetoric and the valiant efforts of individual business school professors who are retrofitting this content into conventional degrees, it is hard work and largely thankless in career terms. The risk is that we will continue to reinforce the basic operating principles of business education at the MBA level to the detriment of other possibilities.

If this emphasis on greening the conventional MBA continues, we may get the worst of all worlds: We will continue to see a relatively small proportion of MBAs embrace these questions at a serious level while the vast majority continue to follow the money—perhaps with increasing cynicism after being forced to listen to ethics and corporate social responsibility teachers contradicting finance and strategy professors. This likely will trickle down to their decisions in the corporate world.

In the 1990s, some corporations attempted to reinvent their business models, like DuPont and Interface. Others articulated the socially responsible rhetoric and countless more reported on their social and environmental performance in complete isolation to their underlying strategies.

Effective sustainability reporting, backed by increasingly sophisticated rankings, became one of the key determinants of corporate social and environmental credibility, regardless of sector or actual performance. Today, in part due to the work of organizations such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, that has changed. Rhetoric and rankings are no substitute for action, and both may mislead or, worse, divert attention from the real work.

Alternative Approaches to Sustainable Education
It is fairly clear to most of us in the business education game that the future of the general MBA is somewhat uncertain, constrained by its history and its institutional iron cage. Withering critiques of the current model of business education, especially the MBA, have been launched by noted scholars such as Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford, Henry Mintzberg of McGill and the sadly missed Sumantra Ghoshal of London Business School. Pfeffer is particularly critical of MBA rankings criteria, which he believes result directly in distorted signals to schools and dishonesty among students. In a recent article for BizEd, Pfeffer wrote that MBAs today convert incoming students with a relatively broad view into graduates with a shareholder-first perspective.

I would like to propose an alternative strategy. We know how difficult it is to change the mind-sets of mid-career managers in businesses starting to address sustainability questions. It will be even more challenging to influence the paradigmatic assumptions of finance, accounting, economics, MIS, marketing and strategy professors responding to the conventional MBA marketplace. Retrofitting the education should continue, but I don’t believe it’s the most effective deployment of scarce socially and environmentally aware professorial resources.

Critics, and even supporters, of the general MBA believe that more emphasis on real-world learning and student engagement will be increasingly important to the perceived and actual value of management education in the future. This increased emphasis provides two important opportunities: An avenue to bring experiential learning and student engagement on global issues into undergraduate business and management degrees; and an introduction of relevant and specific social and environmental content and experiential learning into specialized master’s level degrees in business and management.

This approach shouldn’t only be applied to the MBAs. An emphasis on undergraduate learning for sustainable business is long overdue. This is where minds are most easily inspired and typically where courses elsewhere in the university system may be used to help create a more rounded business or management education, with majors and minors in environmental, economic or social fields. When I taught at the MBA level, I thought I had achieved success if 5 percent of the students took my sustainability electives. If I had the ability to go back, I would have spent the time teaching more undergraduate sustainability classes—ideally to first-year students and ideally mandatory.

Undergraduate business and management students can be extraordinarily engaged and motivated, and professors advocating sustainable and socially aware business need to rethink the misapprehension that “only MBAs count.” One day those 18-year-old students will seek out employers and perhaps even MBA programs that match their social values and expectations. At very least, they will be intelligent and discerning decision-makers when they graduate.

At the graduate level, I hope to see the growth of specialized programs. Finance MBAs should feature the enormous untapped business opportunities of socially responsible investing. Technology-focused MBAs should feature environmental science and engineering. Entrepreneurship students should study green design and social innovation. And health MBAs should be educated on social inclusion and stakeholder governance. I would argue that these are the programs that progressive business schools and green- and socially-minded professors should be looking at as much as the general MBA.

In the next few years, Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, will be pursuing this approach. The university has created mandatory two-semester foundation courses showcasing sustainability and ethics for incoming students in all of the school’s six graduate management programs—MBAs included. Dalhousie also plans to include these types of courses into the undergraduate management and commerce curricula. This approach may not help with the rankings, but I believe it is the way to go.

In a world in which time is short and the stakes are high, social and environmental education for future business, public sector and civil society leaders needs to be as focused and meaningful as we can possibly make it. It is time to rebalance the effort.


David Wheeler is the dean of management at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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