Green MBA

Is the Green MBA a Myth?
by Nancy Nachman-Hunt 


In the world of graduate business education, the evolution of the so-called "green" MBA has been an increasingly hot topic in student, academic, and think tank circles for at least the past decade. There are rankings and ratings and recruitment videos on university websites touting the importance and the undeniable relevance of looking at business as a force not only for stockholder profit and economic growth, but also for promoting social progress and environmental protection.

Adhering to the triple bottom line by calculating the social and environmental as well as the financial costs of corporate activity is a concept that an increasing number of companies are at least aware of, and one that an increasing number of business schools introduce to their students.

But how much of all this attention surrounding the blossoming of green MBAs is and how much of it truly indicates a sea change in the way business schools educate the management corps? The answer is less clear than you would think, considering the increasing importance to mainstream society of social and environmental sustainability. In some cases business itself is way ahead of business schools when it comes to social and environmental sustainability.
"Have business schools gotten greener? Yes," says Mark Albion, former marketing professor at Harvard Business School and a longtime observer and participant in the process of greening MBA programs. "But business schools are behind the curve. They’re not the lead dogs, business itself is."

Let’s look at some numbers, courtesy of The Aspen Institute’s Center for Business Education. "Beyond Grey Pinstripes," is an Institute survey which has been measuring graduate schools’ progress toward more comprehensive models of business education for the past decade or so. According to the survey, the number of institutions offering courses in social, ethical and environmental responsibility increased by 20 percent between 2005 and 2007. The percentage of schools that require students to take a course specifically dedicated to business and society issues has increased more substantially, however, from 34 percent in 2001 to 63 percent in 2007. While these required courses can be powerful agents of change, Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Business and Society Program at the Aspen Institute agrees that MBA programs have a long way to go before they can offer up graduates with the skill sets businesses increasingly are demanding. "Business schools are beginning to think more holistically, but they need to offer more," she says, "especially about how to manage in multi-cultural settings."

"Business schools have been slow to change for a number of reasons", Albion says. "First, older faculty have not entirely bought into the new curriculum, and many top business schools can only move as fast as their faculty allow. Many of them haven’t done research on social and environmental sustainability and often don’t have any idea about how to approach these issues in their teaching." The majority of students currently entering MBA programs are still interested solely in traditionally oriented business degrees. "Only about 20 percent of the students care deeply about social and environmental issues," Albion says. Another Aspen Institute study, this one surveying MBA student opinions, confirms Albion’s assertion. It shows that, in 2007, students ranked the importance of companies having progressive environmental policies near the bottom when they were asked about their definition of a well-run company.

The 20 percent who do care deeply, and the ever increasing number of companies that want to hire them, will be happy to know that there are graduate schools of business that have emerged as true leaders in this new, and more relevant, kind of business management training.

Right now, the anointed leader among mainstream traditional graduate schools is Stanford University. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is ranked number one in the Aspen Institute’s most recent 2007-2008 "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" survey. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based institution offers six courses in corporate responsibility and business ethics, one course in environmental management, and a Public Management Program designed specifically for those who want to tackle social and environmental issues. Albion, who is not affiliated with the Aspen Institute, gives his kudos to a number of other mainstream business schools. Among them are programs at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Denver, Michigan and Duke University. He’s a fan of the Colorado schools because, he says, they’ve tended to create more integrative programs and attract more socially and environmentally committed students. Albion’s surprise pick for top honors is Babson College in Massachusetts. "Babson has had an integrated MBA curriculum for 17 years which makes it one of the oldest green MBA programs in the U.S.," he says. "Right now, in my opinion, it’s the best positioned of any of the schools."

The beginning of the new century has given rise to a new kind of freestanding graduate business education institution based on a model that assumes students learn to make the world a better place. Among the leaders in these innovative MBA programs are San Francisco’s Presidio School of Management and Seattle’s Bainbridge Graduate Institute. "BGI has the culture I wish all business schools had," Albion says. "There is collaboration there. It’s the sustainability focused culture I dreamed I would walk into 25 years ago." Both are devoted to management education that fully integrates issues of social and environmental capital into all course offerings.

Neither Bainbridge nor Presidio is ranked in the "Pinstripes" survey because they are not accredited by the AACSB (American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business). Bainbridge is currently undergoing AACSB accreditation review, and Presidio has already received accreditation by WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges).

Both programs receive consistent high praise in "Business as Unusual," the student guide to graduate business programs published by Net Impact, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose membership includes MBA students in 63 graduate programs around the world. Net Impact members currently rate Bainbridge number one and Presidio number two.

"The business school landscape is divided into three categories," says Gifford Pinchot, founder of Bainbridge Graduate Institute and grandson of the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "There are the ‘don’t cares,’ the ‘one-two elective courses,’ and those who bring issues of social and environmental responsibility into every course and every discussion. There are just a few of us in that latter category."

One of the advantages to remaining apart from traditional graduate schools of business, Pinchot says, is that the faculty and the students you attract are committed to the same values as the institution. "We didn’t want to be tied to professors who didn’t believe in what we believe in."

In their short tenures, both schools have produced industry leaders. Among Bainbridge graduates are the head of sustainability for Columbia Forest Products and the head of corporate social responsibility for Seattle-based REI. Pinchot is particularly proud of the Bainbridge feedback he received from his REI graduate. "He came back and told us that what is treated as casual coffee room conversation at BGI is considered world shaking at REI."

Presidio counts among its first graduating class Simran Sethi, an awarding-winning journalist and current Lacy L. Haynes Visiting Professional Chair at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Sethi is the kind of student that business schools like Presidio and Bainbridge tend to attract. She’s already a professional and committed to addressing social and environmental sustainability issues as part of her work. In Sethi’s case, she found herself reporting on the impacts of multinational corporate behavior on the developing world and realized she needed a strong business education background to fully understand why businesses behave the way they do. The integrative nature of the Presidio MBA is what attracted her.

The emergence of such programs as those offered by Bainbridge and Presidio is an indicator that mainstream graduate business education may be ready to take the next step toward true integration of triple bottom line philosophy, observers say. It’s also an indicator that there may well be more potential students out there than surveys have identified. But time is of the essence, according to Albion. "We have a five year window to launch a business school wide curriculum that teaches how a good business is one that uplifts the spirit and helps the planet," he says. "More than ever, the planet needs a ‘fragile, handle with care’ Post-it note slapped on it. Business schools are positioned to put it there."


The good news and the bad news about green MBA growth is embedded in the results of the most recent Aspen Institute survey of graduate business schools. Here are some illuminating findings from "Beyond Grey Pinstripes, 2007-2008."

• Between 2005 and 2007, elective courses per school featuring some social/environmental content increased by 50%.

• Between 2005 and 2007, elective courses per school that were largely dedicated to social/environmental issues increased by 20%.

• Between 2001 and 2007, the percentage of schools that require students to take a course dedicated to business and society issues increased from 34% to 63%.

• 35 schools currently offer a special concentration or major that allows students to focus on the social and environmental issues inherent in mainstream, for-profit business.

• 5% of business school faculty have published academic research on social or environmental topics in leading journals.

For more information check out:

"Beyond Grey Pinstripes, 2007-2008: Preparing MBAs for Social and Environmental Stewardship"

"Business as Unusual: The 2008 Net Impact Student Guide to Graduate Business Programs"

Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a former editor of LOHAS Journal. She has been observing the rapidly growing "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability" marketplace for nearly two decades.