Can Sustainability Reinvigorate the Liberal Arts?

Back in 2006, former President of Cornell University Frank Rhodes wrote an essay calling sustainability “The Ultimate Liberal Art”, saying that the tenets of sustainability could be used to make liberal arts degrees relevant once more.

History degree, huh? What are you gonna do with that?

I originally found this topic from JustMeans writer Andrea Brennen, who sums up Rhodes’ view fairly well, but I’ll break it down even further.

  1. Liberal Arts degrees are losing credibility.
  2. This is bad, because they help teach critical thinking, historical context, perspectives, etc.
  3. The Liberal Arts can be reinvigorated by applying them to the current age (i.e. sustainability)

Brennan explains Rhodes’ point of view:

Sustainability, Rhodes argues, is the perfect unifying force; its interdisciplinary framework requires an understanding of science, social science, and economics, and its overarching philosophy is underwritten by weighty moral considerations, ethical debates, and issues of social justice. Additionally, sustainability carries with it a sense of urgency, a nonpartisan immediacy, and a call to action.

I personally love this idea, but Brennan is skeptical, and for good reason. “When did education (or, more specifically, the liberal arts) become about the totalizing presentation of one unified ideology?” She makes the case that at this point we wouldn’t even know what that ideology would be. “Sustainability, as a notion, seems to vacillate between the utmost ambiguity and hyper-specificity, depending on who you talk to. It can mean something as vague as “caring for the earth” or as explicit as not traveling in an effort to reduce your personal carbon footprint.”

*cough* I disagree. Yes, to some people sustainability is just caring for the environment, but that’s not the extent of it. Sustainability takes the whole system into account- environmental sustainability with healthy economic growth, social issues are weighed with a healthy dose of ethics.  It’s the whole package, all with the potential to be taught with new, innovative methods.

I think Rhodes is right. We just need to better explain what a sustainable liberal arts education would look like.

What Business Schools Must Teach About Sustainability

Picture via Creative Commons

GreenBiz has just released an article about the 10 Things Business Schools Must Teach About Sustainable Development. The World Environment Center brought together 40 big brains from companies, NGO’s, and the public sector to figure out what MBA’s need to know when they graduate.  Here’s the list, and you can find more explanation here:

  1. Understand Geo-Political, Economic, and Marketplace Trends Related to Sustainability
  2. Emphasize the Role of Science and Innovation in Advancing Sustainable Business Opportunities
  3. Demonstrate the Sustainable Business Strategies Must Ultimately Yield Profits
  4. Examine the Role of Meaningful Partnerships and Opportunities for Efficiencies Along the Entire Value Chain
  5. Stress the Importance of Communications Skills With Customers and Stakeholders
  6. Highlight the Role of Public Policy and How It Shapes Both the Structure of Markets and the Demand for Products
  7. Instill Competencies in Project Management that Specifically ‘Operationalize’ Sustainability
  8. Integrate the Teaching of Sustainable Development with Finance and Marketing Courses
  9. Foster a Systems-Thinking Approach to Management to Account for the Increasing Complexity of Sustainability
  10. Develop Multicultural Perspectives and Interpersonal Negotiating Skills.

I think this is a fantastic list and absolutely necessary in a sustainable business education, but something bothers me about it… and I’m not completely sure why.

I think it’s the possibility that some of these still rely on sustainability being pushed into the traditional business status quo, which has shown itself extremely difficult to pull off. Or that most schools are still years away from offering this kind of education. I’m not really sure.

The biggest thing for me, now that I’m thinking about it, is neglecting to talk about any kind of personal sustainability.  The last one kind of talks about it- being open to as many different perspectives as possible is completely necessary in a sustainable business. But its more than that. There is a “Yes! and…” mentality that is highly valued at my school, Bainbridge Graduate Institute, which basically means that all perspectives are welcome and valued, and that optimism and hope are paramount.

That’s what we need to start teaching in all of our schools.

Sustainability and Social Media

Picture via Carrot Creative

I ran across an article today about modern corporations and their use of social media to communicate their sustainability efforts.  Apparently most businesses are already using social media in their PR, advertising, and marketing departments, yet are woefully behind the curve when it comes to discussing their Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability initiatives.

Some interesting numbers come from the article: while some 80% of companies use social media for the usual PR or marketing needs, 60% are not using it to talk about sustainability.  This is a total waste of an opportunity, and the article explains why:

“The philosophies of social media and sustainability have a great deal in common. Both are built on the pillars of transparency, ethics and innovation, and both can help secure a company’s bottom line. The most successful social-media sustainability communicators are all demonstrating how their companies can be useful to the greater community and they’re doing it in a way that allows true community participation and feedback.”

Part of the answer can be attributed to the limited importance of sustainability issues in these companies, but I believe its the required transparency and back-and-forth communication required by social media.

Most companies at this point are doing the minimal effort required to comply with governmental regulations.  Beyond giving lip service to the importance of “green” (I hate that word) issues of today, many businesses are sorely lacking in any honest, positive efforts towards sustainable goals.  Do they really want to explain over and over again why they’re dumping toxic chemicals, or manufacturing products designed to be immediately thrown away?

Would you want to talk about this?

Or what about when their sustainability social media efforts backfire? Take BP during the oil spill for example.  Because BP wasn’t being completely honest (read: lying like a rug) in their response to the spill, a semi-official looking Twitter account named BPGlobalPR began making fun of the real BP.  The result? BPGlobalPR has almost 185,000 followers.  The real BP has only 18,000.  Companies are just now realizing how important social media really is.

Beyond that, I think there’s a mindset needed at these companies that just isn’t used to honest feedback.  That’s where modern academic institutions can help shape our future.  Students today are generally well suited for sustainability in social media, and here’s why:

1. Familiarity with the format. Students today generally understand how to use Facebook and Twitter, what makes a video go viral, and how to talk civilly on the interwebs.  Most students have grown up with computers and the internet, and are simply comfortable using it.

2. Passion for Sustainability. There are more student-led initiatives for sustainability in today’s universities than there were even a few years ago.  Young, hopeful, optimistic people who grew up watching Captain Planet would like to do something to help the world.

3. The need for transparency. We’ve grown up being completely bombarded by commercials and advertising and we’re sick of it.  Many students today are simply looking for an honest conversation from companies today instead of a traditional, top-down message.

Think I’ve missed something? Let me know!

Rethinking the MBA

The traditional MBA graduate no longer has the skills to meet the business challenges of the current age.  A new article by my good friend Melissa Dingmon explains the problems with a traditional business education:

“Traditional MBA programs are built on the assumption that any decision with the potential to reduce short-term returns for stockholders is ultimately unethical. Core MBA courses (accounting, finance, operations, economics, marketing, etc.) train business leaders to endlessly work towards maximizing these short-term returns. And the logic goes, if you are able to achieve that, you and your businesses will be successful in the eyes of the accepted status quo. The downside: Many decisions that maximize short-term financial gains often come with negative externalities, such as natural resource depletion, pollution and social injustice.”

Dingmon goes on to tell us the three most important parts of an education built around sustainability, especially:

Systems Thinking-It’s time to begin understanding how each part of one system has an effect on another.  We can no longer just ignore the problems we create as a society, because they will (and are) just going to bite us in the ass later on.

Sustainability-We need to begin measuring success in ways that have a neutral or positive effect on our environment.  We can no longer run a business that relies on a supply chain which it is unknowingly destroying.

Wide Analytic Skills-Students must be able to think in terms that haven’t traditionally been measured, like social impact or environmental worth.  Figuring out how to measure new aspects of a business requires creativity and honesty.

I’d like to add one more to that list, which is mentioned briefly.  Transparency is going to be one of the most important aspects of a modern business in a world where information is more and more accessible and easily spread.

And here’s a quick plug for the creator of the article:

Melissa Dingmon is a freelance Social Media Manager for GreenBiz.com and Director of Admissions and Systems Design for Bainbridge Graduate Institute. She is a BGI alumna, having earned her MBA in Sustainable Business in 2006. Her personal brand, SustainableMBA, focuses on her passions: sustainability, business, social justice, health and humor.

SEED Programs in Community Colleges

Our friends over at Second Nature have shared an article by Todd Cohen, who is the Director of Sustainability Initiatives for the American Association of Community Colleges, about the development of the increasingly popular SEED program among the AACC.

Before I get into the article, I just want to say that I’m super excited to find another blog with the same focus as mine, with apparently a bigger collection of writers (judging by the picture on the front page)  I can’t wait to hear more from them in the future.

So what is SEED?:

Designed to support various AASHE and Second Nature tools, SEED – Sustainability Education and Economic Development – is a landmark effort by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and ecoAmerica to assist the nation’s 1,200 two-year colleges in the critical task of preparing the American workforce with the skills needed to succeed in sustainable, clean tech and other green economy jobs.

According to the article, over 300 (Almost 1/3 of AACC members) community college presidents have signed onto the initiative. The potential for positive change with this initiative is huge.  Imagine college graduates from 1,200 community colleges with a hands-on approach to green jobs, all working towards honorable goals.  Apparently the SEED program is the best way to enable this:

“There is a vast amount of information on green jobs training out there, but SEED cuts through the clutter and brings together the best resources, providing them for free to all community colleges.” said Amy Golden, Executive Director at ecoAmerica, a nonprofit organization that partnered with the AACC to create The SEED Center. “Until now there hasn’t been a nationally available network or resources to connect schools with advanced programs with schools still developing their curricula. The SEED Center will fill that important void.”

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

Link-Ucation 11/12/10

There’s been a healthy dose of sustainability injected into the education system.  Check out what’s on the web!

Have a great weekend!

The Top Five Green MBA Programs in the US (And maybe the World)

The Huffington Post has just written an article naming my school one of the top five MBA programs in the States. We’re number 4, among some heavy hitters.

  • 1. Presidio
  • 2. Stanford
  • 3. University of Michigan
  • 4. Bainbridge Graduate Institute
  • 5. Yale

I’m pretty excited to see the name of my school up there next to #2,3, and 5.  I would always hope to see Presdio on that list as well.  However, I find I need to remind myself that this list is simply someone’s opinion. I’m glad that my school made the list, but if the one or two Sustainability courses at the big name school put them in the top 5 of (maybe the world) then we have a long way to go.

You see, there are only a few schools in the States that have built their curriculum around sustainability from the ground up. BGI and Presdio are two of them. The other schools (and please allow me to make some broad generalizations) usually add one or two survey classes on sustainability and call it good.  This does not make that school qualified to give out a sustainable MBA.

Business students have been graduating from traditional schools with the traditional education and the traditional mindset of profits over anything else.  Can you really change the quality of education with one or two classes? Those tenured professors who think sustainability is bunk probably aren’t too excited to see anything new in the course work.

So if you’re interested in the right MBA program for you, look at some of the newer schools around you.  It’s more likely than not that they’re on the cutting edge of business.