Sustainability and green initiatives are riding a wave of popularity in society, among businesses, in graduate business schools, and increasingly at undergraduate business programs, where bright-eyed future business leaders are being asked to save the world.
These initiatives to teach green issues at undergraduate business programs speak to a larger shift in philosophy at business schools, where a more idealistic new generation is transforming what, how, even where, professors teach. At many programs, the focus is not on assigning blame for the world's problems, but finding and exploiting the opportunities they create. Gone are the B-school silos; in their place are new pedagogical models from team-teaching courses to an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum. Classes these days may take place in buildings designed with the environment in mind—or on international waters. In short, undergraduate business programs have seen the future, and it's green.
At its core, the green revolution at undergraduate business programs is about finding solutions to overpopulation, natural resource depletion, climate change, pollution, and other problems that continue to plague the world. Experts say solving the world's problems is no longer the work of the government alone but also requires businesses—and individuals—to do their part. That means educators, especially those at business schools, will have to produce graduates who understand these problems and can do something about them.
Not a Gloom-and-Doom Gpproach
With the economy in free fall, and many traditional business employers such as financial services firms cutting back on job offers, many students are turning to sustainability as an alternative career path. It's one that aligns neatly with their desire to do good. Mark White, associate professor of commerce at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, believes today's undergraduates are cognizant of the benefits they've enjoyed and want to give back to society. "Undergrads today are more idealistic now than in recent decades," says White. "I'd like them to care about the future of human society on Earth."
The approach that's gaining favor in undergraduate business programs today involves focusing on the opportunities created by the world's problems—from alternative energies to lifting the world's poor out of poverty. "It's not a gloom-and-doom approach," says Marlene Barken, associate professor of legal studies at the Ithaca School of Business. "It's about where opportunities are."
But to teach sustainability to an eagerly optimistic generation without turning people into jaded skeptics requires a light touch, Instead of pointing fingers and singling out wrongdoers, professors at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business often turn to case studies involving companies such as Stonybrook Farms, which has had success in addressing some sustainabililty issues, says Jessica McManus Warnell, who teaches courses in ethics and social responsibility at Mendoza. "Everything we're talking about is the next iteration of what it means to be an ethical and successful company," says Warnell.
At Ithaca, sustainability has become part of the school's fabric, incorporated into the very founding principles of the school, including its mission statement.Even the physical structure that houses the business school is green. The Dorothy D. and Roy H. Park Center for Business & Sustainable Enterprise—a new building with platinum LEED certification, the highest level granted by the U.S. Green Building Council—is part of a green building boom on college campuses.
Energy Reduction on Campus
Within the walls of that building, sustainability and green issues are part of the required curriculum and include interdisciplinary activities with other parts of the university, says Barken. In Social & Nonprofit Marketing, students consider energy reduction on campus, and in Trends in Sustainable Management they develop business plans for social or sustainable enterprises.
Ithaca isn't the only program taking this approach. At UVA, White teaches Global Sustainability with colleagues in the architecture and engineering departments. Students in that course are challenged to design a project that will improve local sustainability then apply for a grant to fund it, says White, who will also be the academic dean of the UVA-sponsored Semester at Sea in spring 2010, which has the theme of sustainability and will feature stops in ports in Hawaii, Japan, and Italy.
Unlike Ithaca, Wharton has not made sustainability a part of the core curriculum, but its efforts in the area are equally ambitious. Its students can take on a university-wide minor, Sustainability & Environmental Management, that allows students to learn a specific discipline, then delve deeper into specific issues, says Eric W. Orts, professor of legal studies, business ethics, and management. For instance, says Orts, this minor would be perfectly paired with a concentration in entrepreneurship for a student who wants to start a green business after graduation. "What we're trying to do fits in with the dean's vision that business school should be a force for good," says Orts, "not just an institution to increase the salaries of its students."
Teaching methods, too, are getting an overhaul in the age of green. Many professors who tackle green issues in their courses team-teach with colleagues, integrate coursework across functions, or partner with other schools within the university. At Emory University's Goizueta Business School, the Piedmont Project has teachers participating in workshops to brainstorm ideas and learn about green issues, then pays them a stipend to come up with relevant new syllabus designs.
There's a good reason for that. As the green revolution matures, business graduates will need to anticipate rather than simply react to the next wave of sustainability challenges, says Allison Burdette, who teaches business law at Goizueta. As students they'll need inventive programs to show them the way.
Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.