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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Beyond, and beyond
September 28, 2011 - 4:15am

Last week, the Aspen Institute's Beyond Grey Pinstripes ratings came out. The report is a rating of MBA programs worldwide; all schools accredited by AACSB, EQUIS or AMBA are invited to participate. The rankings suffer from weaknesses common to all such efforts which are dependent on voluntary survey response and self-reported data but, that qualification aside, are a legitimate effort to determine what programs do a good job of incorporating sustainability-related information, activities (student groups, internships, etc.) and research into their grad-level B-school undertakings. While the effort is US-based, business schools around the world (if accredited) are invited to participate; of the top 100, twenty-seven (at a quick count) are outside the USA.

After schools submit their data (narratives, lists, statistics), scores are assigned according to an established rubric by a team of post-docs who evaluate such factors as course availability, actual student exposure to sustainability-related material, direct applicability of course materials to issues of environmental and social concern within a context of for-profit business, and the sustainability-related content of published research articles. To score highly, a school really has to "walk the talk". Or, at least, it has to do so better than its competitors. And then brag about it a little bit.

I like the fact that the rankings exist, and that they're getting more attention each year among prospective MBA students and, thus, among B-schools. And I like the focus on business as very possible the single discipline with the greatest impact on public attitudes toward issues of sustainability. After all, since the (putative) argument against any sort of mitigation of social or environmental sustainability is that "it's bad for business", who better to defuse it than businessfolk?

What pleases me a bit less is that Beyond Grey Pinstripes (as the name implies, and consistent with the Aspen Institute's focus on business and society), limits itself to B-schools. Or perhaps that there really isn't a similarly comprehensive global analysis of other accredited professional education programs.

To hint at what might be possible, this week Corporate Knights released its 2011 report on the integration of sustainability content into the professional education programs of Canadian universities. In addition to business schools, the report looks at med schools, law schools and teacher preparation, as well as interdisciplinary research. For the four classes of professional education, the report also lists selected "best practices": methods used by multiple top performers which tend to separate them from the rest of the pack.

Limiting rankings to schools in a single country (and one with far fewer universities than, say, the USA) clearly made the broader task at least somewhat manageable. But the truth is that, for most professions, the number of top-level accredited institutions worldwide needn't be overwhelming. And a case can be made that each of these other professions has potential to influence society's expectations and demands for sustainable behavior to a degree similar to corporate management. Certainly, professional degree holders in the combination of fields could, if they worked in concert, have a greater attitudinal impact than practitioners in any single field, acting alone.

As important as efforts which concentrate on undergraduate education (or overall institutional behavior which, in most cases, translates to the same thing) are, the most they can hope to achieve is a modest shift in the center of the debate -- the median, or perhaps the modal, level of society's willingness to address sustainability in a serious manner. Professionals -- doctors, lawyers, corporate leaders and the like -- have the power to shift the terms of discussion. As opinion leaders, they have potential to defuse much of the denialism now going on. And, by credibly describing likely impacts of unsustainable behaviors on social institutions (public health, public order), they might be able to decrease the distribution of the opinion curve -- shorten the distance between the second decile and reality.

Some law schools, some schools of public health, perhaps some teacher education programs are already taking steps to move their professions in a sustainable direction. But a little more transparency on the issue, a little more attention from prospective students, and a little sense of focused inter-institutional competition couldn't hurt.


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