How Do Sustainability Research Centers Influence Business School Curriculum?

This is the fourth of six questions from a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability research centers at six top business schools.

We have a big opportunity to influence curriculum within the entire university right now. And in the context of that we’ll have the same opportunity within the College of Business.

In a nutshell, as part of reaffirming its accreditation every 10 years, Georgia Tech needs to put together a five-year Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) that touches undergraduate education across all colleges.

CBSS led the development of the Jackets for a Sustainable Future concept paper (the yellow jacket is our mascot), which was selected to be the basis for the QEP in collaboration with another concept paper called Service Learning and Community Engagement. Combined, the QEP is called “Serve.Learn.Sustain” and promotes sustainability-focused community engagement and service learning opportunities for our students.

So, for the next five years Georgia Tech will make large-scale investments into curricular and experiential opportunities for students in service learning and community engagement in sustainability. What our center will do is strategically complement that within the College of Business so that our students get the most out of it.

At the MBA level, we’ve had a growing portfolio of classes in business sustainability, and recently introduced the Strategic Sustainability concentration. We’re taking the same kind of approach — providing information to faculty about the cases and approaches to infuse sustainability into the core courses and electives in their disciplines, and providing support. We’re also creating incentives and support structures to develop new electives.

So within five years we hope to have a very high impact, both at Georgia Tech and within Scheller College of Business.

I would say we have a pretty large influence on curriculum.

Our Center sits in the Strategy and Entrepreneurship area and funds sustainability-related courses. I also actively engage with the faculty who teach our core classes and ask them what type of support they need for including sustainability concepts in their class.

In fact, earlier today I met with a professor from managerial accounting to share case studies. We talked about the best way for her to integrate sustainability in her core class. So we influence it in direct and indirect ways.

We’ve also done benchmarking research to see what other schools are offering, and surveys of executives to see what type of skills they want. In response we’ve worked with other areas outside of strategy, such as finance, to add the appropriate curriculum.

And like Beril described, because we’ve been doing sustainability at Kenan-Flagler for 15 years we have a leadership role on main campus too. I’m the faculty chair of our Sustainability Advisory Committee, and right now we’re in the process of doing a sustainability strategic plan for the entire university.

The MIT Sloan curriculum is a little bit unusual in that we have a tight, one-semester core curriculum.

We don’t even require marketing, strategy, or finance. As a result, the MBA program in particular is very much geared towards electives. We also have this diversity of programs, so there are actually seven or eight different Master’s level programs here. MBAs are barely half of the student body.

So when we create sustainability curriculum, the best place for us to do that is through elective classes. We’ve actively supported the development of several electives around sustainability topics. And we offer a Sustainability Certificate that is an add-on to any of these Master’s level programs, where you take six of these electives. So a lot of our influence is through supporting those classes.

We also do the kind of work that Carol described — helping with the core integration process. It’s always challenging. It’s very much one-on-one relationships with particular faculty in the core who are thinking about integrating sustainability content. I’ve been working with our Organizational Processes faculty, for example, hoping to integrate a case on Pepsi’s strategy.

For the wider MIT curriculum conversation, our faculty are very active in the new Environmental Solutions Initiative that’s at the MIT level. And we’ve all been active in the MIT Energy Initiative and have been involved in the development of the undergraduate energy major, and broader curriculum at the Institute level.

But most of our impact is within MIT Sloan.

I will try to answer this at two levels — a program level, and from an evolving center perspective.

First, our program was developed by a small group of forward-thinking faculty about eight years ago, and the program continuously evolves. So we’re actively involved in testing new pedagogy and new curriculum and changing the program or updating it from both a bottom up (faculty) and top down (dean and administration) approach and support.

All of our students have required project-consulting courses in the fall, spring and a sustainability consulting practicum in the summer and three more required courses on sustainability and systems thinking embedded within the program.

We are also in the process of developing an institute positioned at the crossroads of innovative pedagogy, marketplace impact, and scholarly thought leadership. The Institute’s charge will be to influence curriculum within the business school.

Over the past year, we’ve been the number-one ranked program in the United States by The Corporate Knights. For six years prior to this we have been ranked in the top 25 internationally by the Aspen Institute and top 10 within schools our size.

That recognition and other achievements have given us a platform for promoting innovative pedagogy within university and also within the business school.

Overall, our impact on curriculum is increasing, but it varies by program.

We’ve seen the biggest gains in our residential programs, where we’ve developed, managed and overseen our flagship sustainability courses. Those are not only part of the optional core component of the curriculum, but also include what is taught during orientation, as well as various electives and short courses in an attempt to provide students multiple opportunities of exposure.

We try to bring our own experiences into the classroom through case development of our fieldwork. Where there is interest, we work with colleagues teaching core courses to refine their curriculum to include relevant topics or cases.

More recently, we’ve had success developing curriculum for our growing number of non-residential MBA programs. For those we now offer electives and continue to work with the directors of those programs to find ways to increase exposure to business and sustainability.

We are beginning to branch out more into undergraduate education, which represents a big opportunity given that our school has traditionally focused on graduate education.

We have also been getting involved in executive education, developing customized and open enrollment programs specifically for industry. Those offer more flexibility in terms of what we can offer by working with industry clients to design curriculum based on their specific interests and needs.

Integration into core curriculum is the “holy grail” of sustainability education. It’s a slow process, but it’s absolutely at the center of what we’re trying to do.

At Erb, we’re promoting this integration at three levels.

One, Erb sponsors its own courses. We have an Erb Seminar for all incoming students that is focused on a practitioner’s toolbox approach to equipping our students. We’ve also sponsored development of courses within Ross on human rights and business, and responsible business advocacy. More recently, an alum has proposed a course on impact investing, and a student is proposing another on new business models for sustainability.

Second, we use case studies to try to inject sustainability thinking into core curriculum. For example, we helped develop an REI case study for the operations core course that includes carbon content as a key accounting factor in an operations queuing model.

Third, we’re expanding our perspective on sustainability from dual-degree to an interdisciplinary approach by looking across schools and faculties at the university, to find new ways to integrate sustainability not only with environment, but also with engineering, public policy, law, even social work or public health.


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