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At one time, business schools "greened" their MBA curriculums in response to a new wave of students for whom sustainability was more than just a catchphrase. It was a core value.
That time, however, has passed. Today, business schools are continuing to ramp up their efforts for green curricula, but for a much different reason. In a world beset by economic woes as well as environmental problems— from the scarcity of natural resources to climate change—sustainability represents one of the few potential bright spots in an otherwise dismal recruiting environment.
"Jobs might be drying up on Wall Street," says Catherine Wolfram, associate professor of business administration at UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, "but not in the clean technology sector."
The result: innovations such as the Sustainable Entrepreneurship by Nature course at Babson Collegewhere students turn to the natural world to solve vexing business problems, perhaps obtaining inspiration for a windmill design from the shape of a dolphin's fin. Such an assignment would not have appeared in typical MBA syllabi just a few years ago.
Many business school administrators and faculty say that these curriculum changes are a necessity if graduates are going to find jobs in a global economy where business is increasingly expected to solve the world's problems, or at least not make them worse. "You have to use entrepreneurial thinking to solve problems without taking away from the environment," says Candida Brush, professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College. "You have to do it. It's not a choice."
Administrators at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, which will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its sustainable enterprise in the MBA program in fall 2009, have seen enrollment in sustainability electives double over the last four years even though the size of the MBA student body has remained the same, says Katie Kross, director of the school's Center for Sustainable Enterprise. In 2003, only about 20 students signed up for the MBA in sustainable management at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. Today Presidio boasts an enrollment of 240 students, says Diane Mailey, Presidio's senior vice-president for business development and planning.
Most business schools say that although interest in these courses and programs is probably going to peak and then drop off a bit, the need to study and understand how business impacts the environment will never go away. And business schools are the ones shouldering the responsibility to train a new generation of MBAs who are equipped to make sound decisions. "We don't want to be in the business of chasing fads," says Forest Reinhardt, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, where environmental considerations and case studies have been woven into the fabric of many courses. "We would not be making these efforts if we thought this was the flavor of the month."
Perhaps the closest parallel to B-schools' current interest in sustainability, the environment, and social issues is the push to add ethics to the MBA curriculum following the collapse of Enron in 2001 and the era of corporate scandals that followed. However, unlike that effort, which never resulted in full-blown business ethics programs, sustainability appears to be a trend that is carving out significant space for itself in the curriculum. Some schools are incorporating it into the required core—as sustainability courses or green-related case studies—while others are offering specialized electives in areas such as energy markets, and still others are developing certificate or other joint-degree programs.
At Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, both the core curriculum and electives are becoming greener. Pat Palmiotto, director of Tuck's Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, says the integration of sustainability issues into existing courses is important, but so is adding new programs and courses that focus solely on green issues, as Tuck has done, so students who want to dig deeper, can.
Some business schools are integrating green ideas across campus, not just in the classroom. At Babson, there are 150 green initiatives, which include recycling cooking oil from dining facilities, generating wind power on campus, and using online course packets instead of paper print-outs. The idea is that this is more than just a passing fancy on the part of businesses. It's something that people have to ingrain into their everyday lives. "This is something any forward-thinking manager should think about," says Kross. "It's about good corporate strategy."
Stanford and Yale business schools are among the most well-known for their focus on the environment, and both have been at this for years. Stanford's new $350 million B-school campus, slated to open in 2010-11, is expected to incorporate a number of green features, including recycling or salvaging construction debris, increasing energy efficiency, and using rainwater or recirculated "gray water" for sewage.
But others, such as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, are getting in on the act now. The school recently initiated a joint MBA/masters in environmental science degree. It also offers an MBA concentration in environmental management.
Wharton, says Eric W. Orts, professor of legal studies and business ethics and management, wants to stand out for its rigorous approach to these issues. "There are hard choices to make," says Orts, who heads up Wharton's Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. "The hardest choices are when you're not making a lot of money but have to decide to do the right thing even if it costs more." Wharton makes students aware of those dilemmas and gives them a framework for dealing with them.
While environmental issues are expected to become slightly less popular with students over time, much like e-commerce did after its boom a decade ago, most agree that the world's problems won't easily be solved. Businesspeople will have to play a role in resolving them for a long time to come. Business schools, for example, might have to partner with other schools within their universities to create relevant programs, says Orts. For now, many MBA students are drawn to courses with an energy focus because of fluctuating energy prices, but in the future, they might focus on sustainable innovations that save money, says Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Broader views of how business impacts the environment will start with business schools. But the world's problems won't be solved there alone. Both the private and public sectors will have to work together to make that happen, says Reinhardt. The bottom line: Future MBAs will have to be green to earn green.
Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.