Business schools urged to practise what they preach on sustainability goals
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In 2007, the UN’s “principles for responsible management education” were set out after deliberation by a task force comprising 60 senior staff from business schools and academic institutions. These proposals built on ideas for a “principle-based global engagement platform” introduced by the UN Global Compact at a conference in the US the previous year.
The signatories to the initiative (who now number more than 650) also acknowledged that their “own organisational practices should serve as an example of the values and attitudes we convey to our students”.
In other words, “responsible management education” is not simply a matter of overhauling syllabuses and curriculums in order to prepare students to be “future generators of sustainable value for business and society at large”. Rather, business schools should be incorporating the UN’s sustainable development goals in their own operations — in their energy use and building standards, for instance, or in the way they are governed and in their relationships with the wider communities they belong to.
This is a message echoed in the UN’s Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), launched in 2012. As well as committing to teaching sustainable developments, institutions signing up agree to support local sustainability efforts and to develop “green campuses”.
But good environmental practice is not restricted to members of the HESI network. Business schools around the world are taking their ecological responsibilities seriously. Take Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As well as being home to a Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, Leeds benefits from innovations on the wider Boulder campus, which has seen a 63 per cent reduction in drinking water use since 2002 and a 22 per cent reduction in energy use since 2005.
At the University of Miami, the Herbert Business School’s building recently received “v. 41” certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design scheme. It is the first higher education building in the state of Florida to be so certified. Sustainability features include above-average energy efficiency, 90 per cent LED lighting and a waste audit.
Elsewhere, the Geneva School of Economics and Management has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, as well as offsetting all emissions resulting from flights taken by members of the school. Other institutions in the world have also sought to reduce their carbon footprint. For instance, in 2015 the Goa Institute of Management in India introduced a bus service for employees that led to a dramatic reduction in emissions — as well as sparing those employees long commutes to work in their own cars.
Colleges have sought to enhance the wellbeing of staff and students in different ways. At Aston Business School, for example, deputy dean Caroline Elliott saw an opportunity in the 2018 Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey. “I am very conscious that higher education today is very different, with much greater pressures on colleagues, than when I started work as an academic in a management school 25 years ago,” Prof Elliott says.
The survey revealed what staff are worried about. “To address concerns regarding colleagues struggling to sleep because of work-related stress,” she says, “we have introduced a communications policy encouraging everyone not to send emails outside of working hours.” Staff are also provided with fresh fruit every Monday morning, and are given information about yoga and meditation classes, as well as being encouraged to take part in fundraising for local charities.
Community outreach is a central part of operating responsibly for many institutions. The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University contributes to a Social Embeddedness Report, which measures the extent to which ASU is connected with communities through mutually beneficial partnerships. In Australia, the UniSA Business School has participated in a “Reconciliation Action Plan” designed to improve relations with Aboriginal peoples.
Irene Watson, pro-vice chancellor of the University of South Australia, says that the plan “sets out an approach to engagement with Aboriginal peoples centred around a two-way exchange of knowledge”. Marie Wilson, head of the business school, says that as well as “embed[ing] Aboriginal content in the core curriculum of all business programmes”, she and her colleagues are “examining how can be more engaged, more inclusive and more proactive”.
There is a wider lesson to be drawn from this experience. Commitment to abstract principles is one thing. Operating in accordance with them is quite another.