At Business School, Sustainability Takes Center Stage

It's that time again. Summer vacation is over, the sunscreen and swimsuits have been stashed, and a new school year at business school is under way. But what sort of welcome can the eager new entrants to top MBA programs expect in such interesting economic times?

Throughout the boom years, when a stint at a major business school was more or less a guarantee of a high-paying job in banking or consulting, most new students kicked off the year with an inaugural address from one of the great and good of the business world. These addresses, which tended to focus on "how I did it and how much I made in the process," were usually delivered by an alum of the school and served both as an inspiration and a confirmation that the tuition fees they had just paid were well worth the money.

This year, however, an altogether different type of person has started to replace the senior bankers and corporate CEOs of the past. Now we're seeing speakers who are there to deliver a much softer, more socially friendly message to the potential business leaders of the future. New students at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business (McDonough Full-Time MBA Profile), for example, have heard from Michael Dupee of the fair-trade pioneers, Green Mountain Coffee (GMCR), while their counterparts at Boston University (Boston Full-Time MBA Profile) got the head of marketing from Stonyfield Farm (DANO), a company that gives as much as 10% of its profits to environmental projects. At one of Europe's leading schools, HEC Paris (HEC Paris Full-Time MBA Profile), the MBA program went even further by commissioning the environmental campaigner Yann Arthus Bertrand to deliver an address that had less to say about business per se and more about how responsible leadership could allow the class to play their part in saving the planet.

No Passing FadHowever, while all of this is undoubtedly laudable, a cynic might ask how deeply schools (and their students) really believe in the value of social responsibility and ask whether better economic times might see the return of the usual suspects and a focus on making large amounts of cash by any legal means.

So let me declare where I stand on this. Having worked in, and commented on, the business education sector for nearly two decades I've seen more than a few fads come and go (anyone remember the much-touted, then fast-disappearing, e-commerce courses of the days?). But I don't believe that this trend towards social responsibility is one of them.

Why? First, because corporate social responsibility isn't just a "nice to have" or good PR these days. It actually makes good business sense. Organizations can't get away with polluting on a grand scale, abusing workers in developing countries, or flouting the basic rules of risk management. Of course, a few recalcitrants may still try, but legislation, the revolution in communications, and public opinion are increasingly combining to put a stop to such practices. And many successful companies have also found that building sustainable business models isn't just about winning awards and looking like one of the good guys. It can also save resources, and consequently money, in the long run.

Crowded BandwagonSecond, and equally important to this argument, is the fact that many of the top business schools haven't just jumped on the social responsibility bandwagon since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, they've actually been vocal supporters of it for quite some time.

Take, for example, the student ethics oath at Harvard (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) that has been attracting so much attention of late. Yes, that particular initiative may have stemmed directly from the credit crunch (and the embarrassingly large number of HBS alumni involved in it), but a similar "Hippocratic oath" was proposed several years ago by Angel Cabrera, the current president of Thunderbird (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile). And back at HEC Paris, France's energy and environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, recently indicated that what had inspired him were the ideas he picked up in the school's MBA class as long ago as 1976.

If HEC and its peers really were getting the message as far back as the 1970s, that's not so much jumping on a bandwagon as building it from the wheels up.

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