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Once just a niche MBA specialization, sustainability goes mainstream

LISI NIESNER/REUTERS

Since last November, Caitlin Beaton has been the director of community programs and services at the Bissell Centre, a non-profit in Edmonton that serves people who are living in poverty or are homeless. She oversees the centre's out-of-the-cold drop-in program, its job-finding resources and its free daycare.

Ms. Beaton had trained as a social worker and spent four years as a manager at another non-profit. Yet when she enrolled at the University of Alberta in 2012 to upgrade her education, she decided an MBA would generate a more valuable skill set than a master of social work for a career in non-profit management.

"If you want to run a [social service] organization, you need to understand why people are using it," she says. "But you also need to understand how to run it from a financial aspect – creating budgets, forecasting – and how to implement change and how to do proper staffing. That really comes with an MBA."

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Also, says Ms. Beaton, non-profits are increasingly launching social enterprises such as second-hand stores, trying to generate profit as an alternative to reliance on government funding. In order to be successful, leaders of these organizations have to be able "to run sustainable businesses," she says.

The majority of MBA students across Canada still enter their programs with the aim of graduating into traditional industries such as finance and marketing. But there's also a small but steady percentage who have geared their studies toward sustainability – a broad term that includes corporate social responsibility and ecologically sound practices.

In Ms. Beaton's case, she took a specialization in sustainability within her MBA.

Sustainability in MBA education, which has been around in Canada at least since the Schulich School of Business in Toronto introduced a specialization about 20 years ago, recognizes that businesses and non-profits now address a triple bottom line of economic, social impact and environmental management. But the push for this specialization has "been primarily driven by students," says Joan White, Alberta's associate dean of MBA programs.

Students taking the specialization have a mix of career intentions – some plan to be sustainability professionals in corporations, some are headed for green technology startups and others gravitate toward non-profits or government.

There are two required courses within the specialization at Alberta – corporate sustainability and ethics, and corporate social responsibility. In addition, sustainability students must choose three of nine electives such as accounting for natural resources and natural resource and environmental law.

But sustainability is not just a niche pursuit. Increasingly, at Alberta and on Canadian campuses across Canada, it is being woven into the core of the MBA curriculum.

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"Although there are only 10 students enrolled in our sustainability specialization," says Dr. White, "there are a large number of students taking sustainability courses [as electives]." And all 400 students enrolled in the MBA program are required to take the ethics and corporate social responsibility course.

At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Sauder School of Business began offering an MBA specialization in 2007. The school found that few of its MBA students were attracted to this stream – and that few business professors could teach courses entirely devoted to sustainability.

So when it overhauled its curriculum a year ago, Sauder dumped the stream and instead adopted sustainability as a wider, pervasive theme. The intention was to give "all of our MBA students some basic understanding of sustainability issues," says Werner Antweiler, an associate professor. A course covering business ethics and sustainability issues is now mandatory for all MBAs.

In addition, says Dr. Antweiler, "Our redesigned courses try to integrate sustainability into those areas where they are directly related, such as economics courses or marketing courses. One can talk about cap and trade programs in a finance course as opposed to having a dedicated course on environmental issues."

Schulich's MBA specialization in business and sustainability was the first program of its kind in Canada when it made its debut in 1992. A survey published in 2011 by Washington-based think tank Aspen Institute ranked Schulich, at York University in Toronto, as the leading business school for sustainability research worldwide, as well as the top MBA sustainability program overall outside the United States.

Nonetheless, this specialization has plateaued at 10 to 20 students annually out of a total Schulich MBA class of 400. Enrolment has been flat, says program director Andrew Crane, because "we've not seen a big change in the job market in the number of sustainability positions."

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The profile of Schulich's sustainability students, however, has changed. They used to be "greenies," says Dr. Crane, but now "they're more like the regular MBA students than they are different." This reflects the "mainstreaming" of sustainability issues, he says. "In recent years, we've done more to [put sustainability into] the core of the MBA program than to expand the specialization."

At Concordia University in Montreal, meanwhile, in the Molson School of Business, MBA students can do an informal specialization by combining several sustainability electives. Like UBC and York, Concordia has also "diffused" sustainability content throughout its MBA program, Molson dean Steve Harvey says.

Molson also runs a sustainable internship program, which each year gives 12 to 20 students experience working on sustainability projects at local businesses and non-profits. While some of the impetus for such initiatives originates with employers, Dr. Harvey says, "in large part it comes from the students themselves. This newer generation has grown up with an image of a sustainable world."

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