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David Dunne, director of MBA Programs at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, speaks to students in a classroom on campus.University of Victoria photo services

Until recently, Canadian business schools typically covered climate change, social impact and other sustainability topics as curriculum add-ons.

That’s starting to change, though not fast enough for some observers.

Prodded by students and industry, a growing number of business schools are expanding efforts to embed sustainability into courses and research. A few are overhauling their master of business administration (MBA) degrees, while others are revising core content, adding specialties or offering new out-of-classroom learning opportunities.

Over all, sustainability is moving from the margins to the mainstream of business education.

“It’s very clear there is a groundswell [of interest about sustainability] in the business community,” says David Dunne, director of MBA programs at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business. “I would love to be able to say that business schools have led that, but they haven’t,” he adds. “They are following rather than leading it.”

Gustavson represents one dramatic change: This fall, the school replaces its MBA with one on sustainable innovation, responding to rising student demand.

“We are living in an increasingly polarized world,” Dr. Dunne says. “We are seeing young people in particular question the entire basis of economics and commerce. If we don’t wake up to that, we will have fewer and fewer who are interested in the traditional careers we are training people for.”

Student interest is credited, in part, for a revamped MBA this fall at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. “Young people increasingly have an interest in some sort of sustainable business, not least because they are the ones who will inherit the Earth,” says John-Paul Ferguson, academic director of the MBA program at Desautels.

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Alexander Charette and Sophia Steele, both first year students at The University of Guelph’s Lang School of Business and Economics, are pictured on campus on Feb. 11, 2020. As part of their first year studies all Lang students must take an ethical dilemma course and take part in a student-run sustainability conference.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Current students have a “non-trivial amount of exposure to issues of sustainability,” Dr. Ferguson says, thanks to individual professors. But now there’s a push to deepen student exposure to a range of climate and social-impact issues.

“We want a version of sustainability that is not platitudes,” Dr. Ferguson says. “That requires the hard work of doing research, developing cases and modifying class materials.”

He says he believes that equipping future leaders for tomorrow’s realities, “is the most important thing in the world.”

For some, sustainability will test the relevance of business schools in the coming years.

“Business education, unless it captures this [topic], will become redundant because industries will have changes and our students won’t want to come to us,” says Rumina Dhalla, MBA graduate co-ordinator at the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. “They will go to where they can get this.”

Lang is one of more than 650 global business school signatories to the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), which is tied to the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals of prosperity, social equality and climate change remedies. Sustainable commerce was added in 2014 and currently accounts for 73 per cent of enrolment in Lang’s three MBA streams.

In 2016, the school introduced “the great ethical dilemma” as a capstone project requirement for all first-year bachelor of commerce students. Working in teams, the students have 36 hours to solve a fictitious but plausible problem as a wrap-up assignment to their first term and present their findings to judges.

Lang commerce student Sophia Steele and her teammates had to recommend how a wind farm developer in Australia could proceed with a turbine project without harming an endangered species of bats. The capstone project she completed last semester helped her realize the value of employers with ethical and sustainable practices.

“When you work for a company, you want to feel represented by the views that company holds,” Ms. Steele says.

Classmate Alexander Charette was also spurred to think about the purpose of business. “[The project] changes your thinking to how you are doing business for good instead of how to make the most money in business,” he says.

Mr. Charette had planned to minor in French but is now considering enrolling in Lang’s new minor in sustainability for any student on campus.

Despite a proliferation of sustainability-related offerings at business schools worldwide, the transition to a carbon-neutral, socially inclusive economy will take more than retrofits to existing programs, says David Wheeler, co-founder of the Toronto-headquartered Academy for Sustainable Innovation, an initiative to train and certify a generation of professionals to lead Canada's transition to a low-carbon economy.

A litmus test for schools, he says, is their commitment to delivering sustainable finance courses that teach more than profit maximization.

“When we looked at how many business schools were actually interested in climate finance as an issue of importance to Canada, it was a very small sample,” says Dr. Wheeler, a former dean of business at Dalhousie University and at the University of Plymouth in England.

One notable exception to the shortage of sustainable finance courses, according to Dr. Wheeler, is the Institute for Sustainable Finance at Queen’s University Smith School of Business, which brings together academia, business and government to provide training and research for those in mainstream financial markets to transition to a low-carbon economy.

“That is a really important development for business schools in Canada,” Dr. Wheeler says. “Addressing climate and sustainability without mobilizing the capital markets is whistling in the wind.”

Sean Cleary, the institute’s executive director and a professor of finance, describes sustainable finance as “a nascent area and just coming into the mainstream,” which factors climate change and related issues into capital allocation and risk-management decisions. In April, the institute will run its first executive education course in sustainable investing for managers.

Meanwhile, Smith’s master of finance degree includes a sustainable finance course, while about 24 per cent of the curriculum in the MBA covers issues of corporate social responsibility, according to a school spokeswoman. MBA students can add a certificate in social impact, which includes completing a major project for a business or non-profit organization.

Mr. Cleary sees an urgency to train managers for the new fiscal uncertainties linked to less predictable economic conditions. “Action is needed to make changes and try to reduce the impact of global warming,” he says. “Companies that are not taking these changes into consideration are not going to be well prepared.”

His urgency is shared by Ken Corts, vice-dean of faculty and research at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, where he teaches a clean energy course as a new elective for the school’s MBA major in sustainability.

“Sustainability is more and more not an optional thing you can bring to business,” Dr. Corts argues. “A sustainability mindset is a business mindset.”

Future business leaders, he adds, will increasingly have to answer to multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders, on environmental and social issues.

The broader perspective appeals to Adi Vashist, a Rotman MBA student and a co-president of Net Impact, which is part of a global network of student sustainability clubs. In April, the Rotman club, alongside industry sponsors and the Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability project – established in 2004 to make sustainable decision making “business as usual” – will play host to an international student case competition on scaling up sustainable financing.

“Fifteen years ago, anyone working in the [social] impact space would be considered to be working for a charity,” says Mr. Vashist, an India-born former investment banker who previously studied and worked in the United States.

Tired of what he saw as the “money, money, money” focus of investment bankers, Mr. Vashist hopes after graduating this spring to join a venture capital firm that invests in startups with a social or environmental mission.

Sustainability is also top of mind for business school accreditation bodies. In April, the Florida-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a global accrediting organization known as AACSB International, is expected to endorse a new standard for business schools to “demonstrate positive societal impact through internal and external initiatives or activities consistent with the school’s mission,” says Michael Wiemer, the global accrediting body’s senior vice-president and chief officer for the Americas. “Schools have been doing it, but now it is going to be much more of an expectation.”

Still, for institutions eager to infuse sustainability into their curriculum, the process takes time.

Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business is midway through faculty efforts to set new learning goals for students to develop a broad view of value creation, not just profits. They expect to be introduced by 2021, at the earliest.

“It doesn’t mean adding more core courses or adding a separate concentration or a set of electives, we already have those,” says Stephanie Bertels, director of the school’s centre for corporate governance and sustainability. “What it will mean is really thinking about how we distribute this set of core learning objectives … and how we figure out how to embed them in every course.”

Like students, professors are on their own learning curve.

In January, the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, a member of the UN’s PRME since 2014, was selected as one of 35 global business schools to further collective efforts to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.

The school already offers a required core course in ethics and corporate social responsibility and provides faculty access to a PRME library with sustainability-oriented cases and other resources.

Workshops for professors are essential, says Margaret McKee, the MBA program co-ordinator and an associate professor at Sobey.

“We have done additional faculty sessions with the [UN] sustainable development goals to make faculty aware of them and for opportunities for cross-disciplinary discussions, in terms of how I might bring this into a statistics, finance or economics course,” Dr. McKee says. “Having people from different disciplines coming to talk about that has really opened people’s minds to the possibilities.”

Last November, the school held its first responsible-investing conference that attracted finance students and professors and industry representatives.

“In business education, what we are trying to teach our students is that there is a business case to be made for sustainability,” says Jane Mulatz, Sobey’s director of strategy and accreditation.

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