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The Best Way to Rank the Top Sustainability MBAs

Eban Goodstein headshotWords by Eban Goodstein
Health & Education
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Co-written with Reagan Richmond

Mission. Purpose. Sustainability. These are the new touchstones of the business world. Consumers, employees, and watchdog groups are demanding that the companies they shop at and work for help solve the social and environmental challenges that the businesses themselves have helped create. Increased awareness, the transparency of the digital-native age, and the growing impacts of climate change mean we are no longer able to separate the fashion cycle from the waste cycle, or project risk from climate risk.

How have business schools responded to this new business imperative? When the Bard MBA in Sustainability launched in 2011 there were only a handful of business programs with a sustainability focus. Now the majority of top business programs are addressing the topic at some level.  In most cases, the commitment is minimal with a research center or a course or two. The most advanced schools have gone further, adding a “bolt on” concentration. Yet even these MBAs, considered as a whole, are still single-bottom line focused. The great majority of courses remain organized around the dominant late 20th-century business vision of “maximizing shareholder value”. 

Nevertheless, with the growing number of programs with sustainability concentrations, different groups are grappling with how to assess the impact of these programs. Net Impact shares a ranking each year of business programs that include environmental and social impact. Another list, the Corporate Knights Better World MBA Rankings gave the 2018 top spot to the UK's Warwick Business School. The decision cited Warwick’s “meaningful integration of sustainable development into half of its core courses, extensive faculty research on sustainability themes (212 sustainability publications over the past three years, averaging over one per full-time faculty), and strong gender diversity (42.5 percent of faculty are female).” 

The best we can be 

Relative to the pack, this is a very good performance. But, really, the best? What about MBA programs like Bard’s, where a focus on mission-driven business and sustainability is embedded into, not 50%, but 100% of the courses?  From finance and economics, and from operations to organizations, Bard’s curriculum teaches how to establish and execute on the business case for sustainability. 

And how about the female faculty ratio? Warwick: 42%, Bard: 47%. More importantly, what about the gender diversity of the student bodyIn a recent survey, Warwick was not even listed among MBA programs with over 40% female enrollment (though their Executive MBA recently achieved 50%.) In fact, the best MBA’s in the global survey were proud to say that they had achieved female enrollment of 44%. Bard’s figure? Over 65%. 

So, if curricular focus and diversity are the top ranking factors, why wasn’t Bard’s MBA in Sustainability at the top of the list? As it turns out, Bard was not even on the list at all. 

Privileging use-less publication 

The technical reason for the Bard MBA’s absence from the Corporate Knights ranking relates to accreditation. Bard’s MBA program is fully accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, but that was not the stamp of approval required for inclusion in the ranking by the Knights.   

The more substantive reason is an outdated educational philosophy embedded in the Corporate Knights criteria for excellence: publication by faculty members in scholarly journals. A full 50% of the Knights’ weighting is based on the number of faculty publications related to sustainable development in peer-reviewed journals, along with a further citation of those publications, also in peer-reviewed journals. 

Clearly, intellectual leadership should be a factor in ranking sustainable business programs. But the “publish or perish” pressures in academia have badly skewed the mission of educators. Peer review as a process for knowledge production remains foundational in the natural and social sciences. But particularly in a world where knowledge production has been democratized, the vast majority of academics who aspire to advance causes of social justice and sustainability instead find themselves jumping over and over through useless hoops of irrelevant journal publication. The data is clear that most of them are literally wasting vast amounts of their time, toiling away at articles that virtually no one will read, and that will have no intellectual consequence. In short, faculty effort in the sustainability field is dominated by way too much focus on peer-reviewed writing, at the expense of engagement with effective, practical education addressing the critical problems at hand.

Sustainability as a problem-solving discipline 

At the Bard MBA, we see business education for sustainability as a highly practice-based endeavor: we educate leaders to grow mission-driven businesses and non-profits and to transform existing organizations to a focus on social and environmental purpose.  To that end, we take the lead from Bard’s established graduate programs in the arts, employing a highly accomplished practitioner faculty. Rather than focusing on research and publication for scholarly journals, our faculty work “9-5” developing sustainability solutions for businesses, and then bring their real-time experience into the classroom in our weekend intensive program. Our location in New York City and the deep talent pool of sustainable business leaders has allowed us to build this unique faculty. 

The underlying intellectual framework of sustainable business is that environmental and social challenges are not only “negative externalities”, but in many cases, should be seen as design problems. And also, that radical, often ecologically inspired innovation can produce profitable solutions where people traditionally have seen social and environmental costs. This powerful shift in perspective is only a couple of decades old, and in that short time, it has taken the business world by storm. Given this brief intellectual history, one can count on the fingers of a hand or two the number of people in the world who have (1) deep practical knowledge of sustainable business, (2) are at the forefront of the field intellectually,  (3) are great teachers, and (4) also focus their professional lives on peer-reviewed publication. At Bard, we opt for the first three. 

Peer-reviewed publication is one thing. Intellectual leadership is another. Bard MBA Professor Hunter Lovin’s helped launch the sustainable business field with her 1999 book, Natural Capitalism. Her latest book, just released is A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life.  Operations Professor Jennifer Russell has recently authored a UN report on developing the circular economy which was officially launched at a press conference at the World Circular Economy Forum. Human Resources Professor Kris kohls’ latest book is Becoming a Sustainable Organization. And Entrepreneurship Professor Alejandro Crawford and his team have created a powerful on-line platform called RebelBase to support mission-driven, disruptive innovation worldwide. 

There is a need for peer-reviewed research that can help us better understand sustainable business strategies and outcomes. But it is a minor need in terms of building MBA programs to create a generation of sustainable business leaders. Peer-reviewed publication is an extremely limited way to measure the intellectual influence of MBA programs in Sustainability,  and it should certainly not have a 50% weight in determining the “best” MBA for building a finer future. 

Who provides the best sustainable business education? 

What would be the best measure of the best graduate business education in sustainability?  Conceptually, the answer is simple. MBA Alumni changing the world.

Here are two possible metrics. First, what percent of graduates are following their passions and pursuing successful, high-impact careers in sustainable business? And two, what have they collectively accomplished, weighted by their years out of the program?

Granted, there is not publicly available data to answer these questions. But an enterprising researcher could get a first approximation by mining Linked-In, and doing some survey work. Perhaps an Assistant Professor of Management somewhere could even get a peer-reviewed article out of writing up the results.

In the absence of this kind of direct evaluation of student success post-graduation, another metric to consider would be MBA student performance against other programs in international sustainability business case competitions, again, considering the number of students in the sustainable MBA concentration or program.   

Last year, Bard’s MBA team placed second in the Patagonia Case competition, in a field that included MBA teams from MIT, Yale, NYU, Wharton and the University of Michigan. Cory Skuldt, a Bard team member noted that:  “Among all the teams competing, we were uniquely prepared to demand an uncompromising level of climate responsibility and identify the business opportunity in doing so”. 

At the end of the day, The Best Sustainability MBA Ranking needs to assess what is most important: student’s empowered with tools to change the world.

Previously published on the Bard MBA blog.

Eban Goodstein headshotEban Goodstein

Dr. Eban Goodstein is an economist and Director of Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Bard College. Goodstein is the author of three books, including Economics and the Environment, (John Wiley and Sons: 2017) now in its eighth edition.

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