Human Rights is Gaining Greater Prominence in MBA Programs

Organizations worldwide are coming under mounting pressure to identify and address human rights issues in their businesses and supply chains

From Chinese cotton produced in Xinjiang and the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, to child labor in supply chains and the dislocation of indigenous communities, organizations worldwide are coming under mounting pressure to identify and address human rights issues in their businesses and supply chains. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened awareness of such issues.

As businesses face calls to integrate respect for human rights across their operations, the subject is gaining greater prominence in the MBA syllabus. Business schools are being urged to integrate human rights considerations into every aspect of business education, which reflects their role in training future business leaders.

“Business schools are tasked with equipping the next generation of leaders with the skills they need to run thriving, innovative businesses that deliver value to society,” says NYU Stern professor Michael Posner, director of Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights. “This will require that human rights considerations are integrated into every aspect of business education.”

Founded in 2013, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights in New York City is the first center dedicated to human rights at a business school. It works with the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights and the Global Business School Network, a nonprofit working to enhance management education for emerging markets, to actively encourage other institutions to initiate human rights programs.

Stern’s Center is also developing a series of MBA courses, teaching models and tools as well as carrying out a research agenda focused on developing recommendations for addressing human rights challenges in several business sectors. “Business schools should also be at the frontier of understanding evolving human rights risks and best practices across industries with dedicated research agendas,” says Posner.

More MBA programs offering human rights curriculum

Faris Natour is the director the Human Rights and Business Initiative, established in 2015 as a joint initiative between Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center and the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley Haas School of Business in California.

When Haas launched its full-length MBA course, Managing Human Rights in Business, in 2016, it was the first of its kind. “Today, more business schools are offering business and human rights courses, and we have seen steady growth in enrollment,” says Natour. “So there’s a demand for this among MBA students who recognize that navigating human rights risks has become a core expectation for successful business leaders.”

He points out that this corporate responsibility to respect human rights is a key pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, an international standard adopted by the UN in 2011 and widely endorsed by business, governments, investors and human rights groups.

The expectations on human rights due diligence have made their way into binding laws and regulations, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act, the French Duty of Vigilance law, and the forthcoming EU directive on mandatory due diligence.

In addition, Natour says that the subject of human rights has become a board-level issue for many organizations. “Modern slavery and other human rights risks companies face are more frequently making it onto the agendas of corporate boards,” he says.

Investors have started assessing human rights risks, and ratings and rankings such as the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark are getting more media attention. “It has become clear to more companies what the leading businesses have always known: that understanding and addressing your company’s potential human rights impacts is integral to business success,” says Natour.

Why companies and business schools need to address human rights issues

Failing to address human rights can prove costly, with companies facing legal and financial risks alongside reputational harm. And yet, despite the greater awareness, it’s still a big leap to assume that this has led to actual change in business practices, points out Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights, and professor at the Institute of Management at Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) in Switzerland.

For example, studies that systematically track how companies assess and remediate modern slavery risks across their value chains are still missing, she says. “It is possible that despite raising awareness for modern slavery, corporate boards still lack expertise as well as the political and financial will to demand operational adaptations that go beyond the ceremonial adoption of modern slavery statements.”

Recognizing that business education needs to change too, GSEM has created a specialization for students interested in becoming experts in sustainable business and human rights. The new master class on Business and Human Rights is a required course and central to this specialization.

However, Baumann-Pauly says that business schools face some key challenges in the teaching of human rights. “The neoliberal business paradigm is still the dominant foundation for business school research and teaching,” she points out. “It leads to a too narrow understanding of business success, one that favors short-term profitability over longer-term business perspectives.”

She also cites practical challenges for MBA course administrators. “Overcrowded curriculums make it difficult to fit in new courses on topics that should not be discussed in isolated silos and therefore require more substantial curriculum reforms,” says Baumann-Pauly.

“In addition, many business schools do not have faculty with the expertise to integrate human rights into business education, and faculty may be skeptical and reluctant to change their teaching.”

The Global Business School Network has published a toolkit that offers guidance on how to make the case for human rights in business school education and integrate human rights into the curriculum.

Baumann-Pauly expresses cautious optimism for the future, noting that students have started to demand courses that teach skills which will enable them to address pressing societal challenges like climate change and global inequalities.

In addition, business school accreditation organizations, and foundations that offer research grants, are also increasingly interested in research that generates positive societal impacts.

Moreover, businesses are looking for graduates not only with technical skills but also with leadership potential. “There is a growing understanding that business school education will become irrelevant if it is unable to bridge the gap between real world challenges and its curriculum,” Baumann-Pauly says.

“Against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, the appetite for working on a business school reform that is able to address grand societal challenges has never been greater.”

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