Beyond "Saddle Bag" Sustainability for Business Education

We have come a long way since I began my academic career as a business school faculty member nearly 30 years ago.  In fact, as an assistant professor in the mid-1980s, I was told by most of my more senior colleagues to forget about my interests in environmental and social issues--that pursuing such a path would effectively kill my chances for promotion and tenure in top tier business schools. 

Despite some bumps in the road, my decision to focus the rest of my profession life on this connection, while seemingly risky at the time, proved to be the best move I ever made:  Over the past 25 years, most major business school in the world have added some kind of initiative, center, or institute focused on sustainability, corporate citizenship, or social entrepreneurship.  I myself have been involved in creating three such centers over the past 25 years--at the University of Michigan's Ross School and School of  Natural Resources & Environment (The Erb Institute), at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School (Center for Sustainable Enterprise), and at Cornell University's Johnson School (Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise).

The problem is that virtually all of these initiatives, centers, or institutes continue to merely hang off the side of the existing business school edifice.  Like the proverbial "saddle bag" on a horse, the issues are contained within separate compartments that are readily visible from the outside, but have little impact on the behavior of the animal itself.  Sustainability has joined other business school "saddle bag" issues such as ethics, entrepreneurship, and emerging economies, as a way to recognize, but stop short of fully integrating them into the core DNA of the institutions.

Indeed, save for cosmetic changes, the MBA curriculum at top-tier business schools remains startlingly unchanged from what it was when I started 30 years ago:  Functional core courses in finance, accounting, marketing, operations, OB, and strategy still rule, with the "saddle bag" issues addressed as elective courses or "immersions" after students have completed the "real" content.   Tenured faculty are typically researchers focused on the established functions and disciplines, not on the challenges contained in the saddle bags (which are more unruly and difficult to study).  Faculty focused on the saddle bags are therefore typically untenured adjuncts, lecturers, or clinical professors with little say in the governance of the schools.  As a result, institutional inertia reigns supreme.

And so, it is high time to move beyond saddle bag sustainability in business education.  Not unexpectedly, the few pioneers that have thus far sought to integrate the "saddle bag" challenges into a new MBA model have been independent players with no prior baggage such as the Bainbridge Institute and Presidio Graduate Institute.  Unfortunately, these up-starts also lack the institutional legitimacy and reputation to mount a serious challenge to the status quo.

That is why the University of Vermont Business School's new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA Program (SEMBA)  represents such an important milestone:  It represents the first time (to my knowledge) a major University has sought to fundamentally reinvent business education and the MBA degree to address the challenges we face in the 21st century--environment, ethics, entrepreneurship, poverty, and inequality. 

Bottom line for the established top twenty:  Ignore this new program at your peril.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Stuart L. Hart published on November 18, 2013 9:41 PM.

Building the Corporate Innovation White Space was the previous entry in this blog.

Elevating the Corporate Sustainability Advisory Council is the next entry in this blog.

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