Madrone League: Open Source Sustainability Education

By Erica Frye

Can sustainability education be made affordable and accessible to the entire world?

Hunter Lovins and Gregory Miller, both of whom have been heavily involved in the Sustainable MBA program at Presidio Graduate School, took to the stage at West Coast Green to discuss sustainability education. Asked what would they do differently if they were starting Presidio over again, they announced for the first time publicly they are doing just that with a new educational venture dubbed the Madrone League that would bring the best of sustainability to students inexpensively via web-based content.

They have a vision of education as global, participant-driven, and open source. In the spirit of TED Talks, learners around the world would have access to the brightest minds and expert knowledge that are typically inaccessible to the masses, and even to most educational institutions. Inversely, tapping a worldwide audience would provide a larger student pool to support even the most specialized topics.

The soul of the model is open source collaboration and participation. Content would be delivered online and supplemented locally by faculty mentors, existing educational and corporate institutions, and ad hoc learning groups. Participants would be the architects of their own educational experience, following their passions rather than a prescribed path. The role of student and instructor would become interchangeable, challenging and improving content collaboratively. Students would even be evaluated on their contributions to courses and fellow students.

Perhaps the most resonant — and necessary — aspect of the Madrone League is making this education affordable to all. Leveraging a worldwide population and eliminating expensive infrastructure would allow for a low-cost education for those who have been previously excluded but need sustainability education most of all.

Their vision aligns with current trends and needs: We can no longer afford to make education, especially of sustainability, available only to the well-off. Greater complexity and instability require us to learn in smaller doses throughout our lives, no longer limited to a linear progression from school to work to retirement. Internet access and video capabilities combine to make a virtual learning network viable, something that would not have been feasible even a few years ago. And, the kinds of public/private partnerships that will be needed to support this network have become mainstream.

Their idealism will run headlong into naysayers, and I admit to having a few knee-jerk doubts because I was stuck in the assumptions of traditional education. But, as innovators, they are wise to focus on what might be rather than what might go wrong.

The Madrone Leauge is still taking shape, and they invite input and collaboration — they’ve already been talking to the likes of Jay Ogilvy and Bainbridge, and Arianna Huffington spontaneously offered her support after hearing their announcement from backstage. If you have an idea you’d like to share, Miller says it can be tweeted to @madroneleague.

Erica Frye is a strategist dedicated to building brands driven by culture, mission, and sustainability, and a graduate of the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts. You can read more from her at

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15 responses

  1. Since I attended Presidio Graduate School, I am pleased to see the faculty investigating a future where this education can be inexpensive and more readily available to those who can not afford or do not wish to participate in a traditional graduate program. Sustainability education benefits us all!

  2. This is a bold and important initiative. We at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute have been working to establish a partnership with Presidio on the Madrone League for five years. We are thrilled to see progress.

    BTW, the link to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute is incorrect. Our website is Thanks for correcting it.

  3. In an effort to build community and promote this most important cause of sustainable business and living, Gifford and BGI has frequently, IMHO, allowed others to take undue credit for ideas generated by the Pinchots, their colleagues, and BGI. This publicity grab by Presidio disturbs me, in that my understanding is that they had been resistant to working with BGI to develop the Madrone League in the past. Gifford’s comment on this article is very positive and gracious and once again sidesteps controversy in order to promote community development and the greater cause for humanity. What is most interesting to me is that I attended an informational visit to Presidio, when choosing my MBA program, Hunter Lovins herself told me that BGI is more focused on community than Presidio is… so it’s strange how they can now turn around and infer that they have taken the lead on a community development project that had been first proposed by Gifford Pinchot. That being said, I support community development that further promotes sustainability in all walks of life, regardless of who gets or takes the credit for it. It’s all good work.

    1. For clarification, at this event Lovins and Miller were not representing Presidio, nor did they present the Madrone League as a venture of Presidio. They talked about it as an idea they, as individuals, were collaborating on.


  4. As a student of Bainbridge Graduate institute, I find this article both hopeful and disheartening. There was little to no mention of the work Gifford Pinchot has put forth on this venture. I’ve written a blog post in response to this article, Erica. Here’s an excerpt:
    “This grabbed me because the “Madrone League” was an idea from Gifford Pinchot, president of my current school, Bainbridge Graduate Institute. The Madrone League is supposed to be a collaboration between graduate schools whose main focus is upon sustainability. An alternative to the Ivy League, if you will. Pinchot has been working on this collaboration for close to five years now, creating dialog between schools like Presidio in order to create as strong a bond as possible before announcing the project to the public.”
    Here’s the link to the rest of my response:

    1. Thanks for sharing your response Alex. We here at 3p certainly want to give credit where credit is due, so I appreciate your cluing us in to the missing back story behind the presentation at WCG.

    2. Yes, thank you for the additional insight. I should have made this more clear in my initial wording — they did present this as a collaborative effort and cited the “Ivy League” inspiration. Off-stage Miller made it plain he was not speaking on behalf of Presidio.

      This writeup was based on a short stage talk and quick interview afterward and I may not have done it justice. The venture warrants additional follow-up to really flesh out the details and tell a more complete story.


  5. The Madrone League will turn out well in the end. My dear friend Hunter asked me to join in the new focus for the use of the name Madrone League before her speech at West Coast Green. I told her I was honored and that since I did not know all the principals, I would need to get to know them before I could join. I told her to do what she thought best, but not to list me as a member of the new company. I implicitly gave her permission to use the name.

    Because I was not able to commit to the new venture, she did not say more about me and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI). I expect to be part of it in some way, but my participation is limited by the fact that I have a full time job that I love as President of BGI.

    I do believe that the Madrone League venture will work with both Presidio and BGI, but as mentioned above by Erica, it is not organizationally connected to either. Its goal is to take to more people the kind of sustainability education BGI and Presidio offer. That is a very good thing for BGI and Presidio as well as for the world.

    Please don’t worry about my ideas being stolen — first they weren’t and second there are many more.

    I and others at BGI are still pursuing a collaborative league made up of the “true sustainable business schools” including Presidio, BGI, Marlboro and Dominican. Now we need a new name, but that is not a tragedy. Oak League? Maple League? I am open to suggestions.


    1. I appreciate all of the above clarification. It is interesting to see my assumptions at work and how they can be easily misguided. I have been taught to identify and question my assumptions at BGI and am clearly a work in progress.
      As a student at BGI, I want to make sure it recieves all the due publicity it can get. My reaction to reading this article was quick and emotional and without due research, for which I apologize.
      I feel a league of like-minded schools can help increase the visibility and influence of the shared vision and would love to see it come together. I suggest the name “Redwood League.” Redwood trees are thought of as majestic, powerful and beautiful. A redwood grove exudes a spiritual force unlike any other place in the world. They are also among the longest lived lifeforms on the planet. As an added bonus, they are endemic to the US West coast, where some of these schools reside.

    2. Thank you for the clarification and example of the graciousness such a movement needs Gifford. It is exactly why I have come to BGI as part of the first evening cohort and am helping to co-create our new evening MBA. The world needs more of us, and we needn’t quibble over minor misrepresentations in the press if we participate in the open communication programs like BGI foster.

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