Slowly but surely: business schools boost sustainability

2nd February 2021

Author: Andreas Kaplan.

A look at the slogans recently introduced by some of the world’s top business schools provides us with an indication that business education has taken a turn toward a more sustainable management approach. Aalto Business School, for example, promotes 'Towards a better future', while Rotterdam Business School communicates about  'A force for positive change'. Instead of profit maximisation and shareholder value, business schools are slowly but surely promoting the teaching of business ethics and corporate social responsibility, societal purpose, and in particular sustainability.

One can legitimately ask the question of why this rather recent shift in mindset is happening now. When the 2008 financial crisis, for which a lot of blame lay with the financial sector’s unethical behaviour, was explored by business schools, they began to question and scrutinise their own teachings. Also, accreditation bodies and league tables started to introduce indicators on societal purpose and sustainability, which obviously motivated business schools to move down this path a lot faster. In 2014, for instance, the well-known accreditation body EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development) launched its BSIS (Business school impact system) label with the aim of providing a tailor-made information and data collection system for monitoring a business school’s (positive) impact. However, personally, I am convinced that all this would not have been enough to persuade business schools to promote sustainability had students not been genuinely interested in these subjects. To me, it is the students who spur business schools on sustainability matters and not vice versa. Students are extremely aware that a successful career would be useless if the world around them were to fall apart due to floods, hurricanes, and other catastrophes induced by climate change and its impacts.

As Rector and Dean of ESCP Business School in Berlin and Paris, I myself have witnessed this trend for some time now. Our two graduate programmes entirely dedicated to sustainability, i.e., the MSc in Sustainability Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the MSc in International Sustainability Management (delivered iteratively across Berlin and Paris), are systematically attracting more students than we have available seats. Our student societies working on sustainability matters, such as Oikos in Berlin or the Noise in Paris, are extremely popular among students. Also, our ESCP Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) conference, annually organised in the heart of Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate, has continuously performed with one of the best student satisfaction rates. Similarly, this is the case with our sustainability seminar, called 'Designing Tomorrow' and taking place on our Paris campuses.

Students will increasingly challenge their business schools on sustainability. If you include sustainability in an existing course, talking about it from time to time, students will demand an entire course dedicated to the subject. If you launch an elective course on sustainability, they will demand that the course become mandatory for all students. In the end, students will ask for an entire degree programme with a clear focus on sustainability. But students will not stop at challenging business schools on academic matters only. The 21st century business school, and more generally the University of the 21st century, will be requested to do (a lot) more.

In the end, students will watch and see whether their business schools are only talking the talk about sustainability or are themselves walking the walk, i.e., whether they recycle their trash, whether they offer eco-friendly snack options, or simply if their operations are generally sustainable. Some milestones of this walking the talk will be easier to implement than others. While introducing recycling on campus should be a relatively easy endeavour, offering only sustainable food on campus, i.e., removing beef or meat altogether from the cafeteria menus, will most likely be a lot more difficult, leading to disapproval from at least some of the students, faculty, and professional service personnel. But it is exactly at this moment when leadership teams should take a strong stance and make the right decisions, as accountability and credibility are at stake.

Pre-order Andreas’ book ‘Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: The University of the 21st Centuryhere.

Further reading: Andreas Kaplan (2021) Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: The University of the 21st Century, Great Debates in Higher Education, Emerald Publishing.

About the author: Andreas Kaplan counts over a decade of top management experience within the higher education sector, currently serving in his role as Dean and Vice-Chancellor of ESCP Business School (Berlin & Paris). Previously, he was the school’s Provost, overseeing approximately 6,000 students and supervising nearly 30 degree programmes. Kaplan completed most of his studies and has spent his professional career alternating between France and Germany. A European at heart, he has additionally worked and resided in Austria, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. He is part of the prestigious society of leadership fellows of St. George’s House / Windsor Castle, board member of the German-French Economic Circle, and a co-founder of the European Center for Digital Competitiveness.