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
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
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