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MBAs get dose of social conscience

At business schools, future business leaders are learning to be kinder, gentler managers. If you’re thinking about an MBA, expect to learn how to use your skills to help the environment and the community.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At business schools across the country, future business leaders are learning to be kinder, gentler managers. In fact, if you’re thinking about getting an MBA, be prepared to learn how to use your financial analysis, accounting and marketing skills to help the environment and the community.

While that may come as a surprise to those who think of business school as a breeding ground for hard-charging executives obsessed with bottom-line results, it also reflects the realities that businesses are dealing with today. As companies go global, their shareholders are demanding more responsible business practices.

Jen Boulden, 30, is a big believer that businesses can be powerful agents of change in the environment. After working in technology marketing for eight years, she decided to get her MBA at George Washington University, in part because the school’s curriculum would allow her to combine her passion for the environment with her business skills. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I didn’t find an environmentally oriented program within an MBA structure,” said Boulden.

Once relegated to the fringes of a business school’s curriculum, schools are slowly integrating ethics, social and environmental management into their classes. At Stanford University, for example, classes on social and environmental issues are woven into 12 of the 14 courses that business school students are required to take. At some schools, students can choose a concentration in environmental management or sustainability, the idea that a company can meet its financial goals without hurting the environment. And outside of the classroom, schools are holding more seminars and conferences on corporate social responsibility.

The Aspen Institute’s Business & Society Program and the World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Enterprise Program recently issued a report on the trend titled “Beyond Grey Pinstripes 2003.” The study found about 45 percent of the schools that participated require students to take one or more courses on such subjects as ethics and corporate social responsibility. That’s up from 34 percent in 2001, the last time the survey was conducted.

The survey’s highest-rated schools — George Washington, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, Stanford, Yale University, and York University in Toronto — offer four times as many courses on social and environmental subjects as the other schools.

“The idea of just focusing on shareholder value isn’t enough for companies,” said Meghan Chapple, manager of business education at WRI. Now, companies have to work with broader constituencies, such as the community, environment and employees, she noted.

Now a 'mainstream' option
Student interest is also rising. At UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, about 20 percent of students attend the school because of its concentration in sustainable enterprise.

At Michigan Business School, when Timothy Fort started teaching business ethics 10 years ago his biggest hurdle was trying to convince students it was an important issue. Today, with the number of students in his class having more than quadrupled to more than 400, his biggest challenge is trying to convince them that they won’t be able to solve all the world’s problems immediately.

Meanwhile, participation in Net Impact, a network of MBAs with an interest in social and environmental business issues, has grown to 8,000 members today from 1,350 in 1998, while the number of chapters jumped to 85 from 45 over the same period. “It’s not just the tree-huggers anymore, it’s more mainstream,” said Benjamin Klasky, executive director of Net Impact.

In fact, one of the biggest concerns Sue McGeachie, 34, had while she was a student at York’s Schulich School of Business was that sustainability wouldn’t be mainstream enough. But after talking to people in the financial community, she felt reassured that her area of interest was here to stay.

“I was already changing careers,” said McGeachie, who’s now a senior analyst at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, an investment research firm that analyzes companies’ performance on environmental, social and strategic governance issues. “I didn’t want to jump into something that was going to dwindle.”