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Graduates grounded in sustainability

McGill professor Steve Maguire, right, speaks with undergraduate students in the program, Juan Ubaque, left, and Leilanie Lee.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Three Canadian business schools are among 35 recognized globally this year for innovative education practices by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The U.S.-based accrediting body identified schools that are reimagining business education by working with other disciplines on campus, industry partners or community-based organizations. The Canadian schools are McGill University, below, the University of Victoria and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Two years ago, second-year bachelor of commerce student Leilani Lee jumped at the chance to sign up for a new interdisciplinary specialization in sustainability offered by the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

In collaboration with McGill's school of environment and department of geography, the business school offers its undergraduates two options: a five-course "concentration" and a 13-course "major" that explores sustainability issues in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

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Ms. Lee, who had considered a major in international business as part of her Desautels degree, switched to the new major in "managing for sustainability" that is taught by professors in business, environment and geography.

"I thought it was much more fitting to what I wanted to do," says Ms. Lee, who expects to return home to San Francisco after graduation this spring and look for a job with a focus on sustainability.

"I have loved the program so far," she says, which requires her to take courses in the home faculties of environment and geography. "Some of my favourite courses have been in other faculties and I have met a ton of really interesting people there that I would not have met otherwise."

That opportunity for cross-fertilization is a key reason for the collaboration among disciplines, says Steve Maguire, director of the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management and a strategy professor who is also an associate member of the school of environment.

Not only were students and professors clamouring for the specialization, says Dr. Maguire, but employers, whether they operate in the consumer goods, resources or environmental sectors, increasingly want graduates who understand all aspects of sustainability.

"Increasingly, it [sustainability] is a point of differentiation," he says.

In the sustainability major, business students who take courses in the school of environment join those in arts, science, agriculture and environment. "They are getting real science and they are getting real social science in terms of environmental issues such as environmental justice," says Dr. Maguire. As well, students who major in sustainability (recorded on their graduation transcripts) can choose from an internship, a real-world consulting project or a research practicum, according to McGill.

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Ms. Lee says the combination of business, environment and geography courses gives her a "unique perspective" that is helping in her search for a job.

"I am getting a scientific background and environmental theory but with a business perspective," she says. "There are really a lot of important changes that are going to be coming from the business world in terms of sustainability. It is exciting and a great opportunity to have this perspective."

Since the introduction of the new options in 2014, graduates have landed jobs in business consulting and environmental advocacy, according to Dr. Maguire.

One side benefit of the specialization is its potential to draw from a larger pool of prospective business students than is now the case, he says.

"A high-school student passionate about sustainability, prior to this program, probably enters [university] through a faculty of science," he says. "Now they have this option."

As a result, he says, students with a high grade-point average and a passion for environmental issues can apply to the business school. Meanwhile, he adds, the students' parents "would have the comfort that [the children] have a business degree under their belt. It is an incredibly practical degree."

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