Socially Responsible Business: Not Just for Dreamers Anymore

CSR practices are becoming more commonplace across all business sectors—and by extension, in MBA programs.

Several years ago, when Ann Terlaak, Associate Professor of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, would pitch her school’s Graduate Certificate in Business, Environmental and Social Responsibility to a roomful of MBA students, it never went over well.

“In the past, they would sit there with arms crossed and kind of look at me like, who is this person?” says Terlaak.

But times have changed.

“Now I pitch the importance of the certificate and they all go, yeah, we get it, it's important. We all understand that as a business leader we have to have it. It's an important part of our skill set,” says Terlaak.

But Terlaak hasn’t changed her pitching style. What has changed, according to officials and experts at MBA programs, is business. Specifically, business leaders are no longer interested in putting corporate social responsibility, environmental friendliness, nonprofit work, or compassionate business practices in a do-gooder box. Instead, they’re interested in embracing them.

“It's good business practice by now, to consider sustainability-related issues,” says Terlaak. “That relates to any business function that you can think of--operations, finance even, any of those. Sustainability has become a part of it. For most businesses by now, it's become a feature that they need to consider to be more competitive.”

More MBA programs including CSR curriculum

Business schools know that, and they’re tailoring their curricula accordingly. Some schools, such as Wisconsin, USC’s Marshall School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Management, offer a sustainability certificate as a supplement to their normal MBA. Others, such as University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and University of Oregon Lundquist School of Business, offer entire MBAs specialized in sustainability.

But many others are simply integrating the mores of corporate social responsibility—CSR— into all of their curricula, even the subjects that have nothing to do with the environment, nonprofit work, or other fields typically associated with socially responsible business.

“What we're seeing in business schools is a move away from polarizing social business, or ethical business, or fair trade, from other business,” says Andrea Warriner of the Skoll Center for Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Saïd School of Business. “We don't see that you have a social business over here and an anti-social business over here. We're looking at impacting all businesses. They all need to take responsibility.”

For example, Terlaak says that at Wisconsin, even professors who teach classes such as managerial accounting touch on sustainability.

See the Top 10 MBA Programs for a Career in Sustainability/CSR

Student demand partially accounts for these schools’ motivation in increasing the presence of CSR in curricula. Warriner says that 60 percent of students at Saïd said in a recent survey that they were interested in the intersection of business and social responsibility.

“More and more students are asking for it, demanding it. There’s a push for schools to offer it,” says Terlaak, adding that Wisconsin started offering its sustainability certificate six years ago.

MBA students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business are also increasingly interested in learning business practices that allow them to integrate with and give back to their community, says Jennifer Francis, senior associate dean for programs at the school. In response, Fuqua started offering an MBA concentration in Energy and the Environment and a concentration in Social Entrepreneurship, as well as a joint degree with Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Can CSR help to fix broken business practices?

Francis says she attributes this increased interest in CSR to an understanding of the myriad ways that business can help solve issues with the environment, healthcare, hunger and education. But officials at other schools also say that the business world—and by extension business school—is evolving because the entire system as it stood before was fundamentally broken.

“I think that people have seen that capitalism as it had been working over the past decade had not resulted in good for the world, so they were looking for something else,” Warriner says. “I had quite a few conversations with MBA students who said they showed up for their internships during their undergrad and felt that the whole organization [where they were interning] was crumbling around them.”

Many of the business world’s recent problems stemmed from a lack of moral guidance or ethical accountability, which is why Harvard Business School now requires students to take a Leadership and Corporate Accountability class in their first year, says Joseph Badarocco, professor of business ethics at Harvard. Badarocco says that officials responded to the recurring scandals that have rocked the business world over the past several decades, as well as an increasing awareness that business people have a responsibility to society and will face scrutiny if they stray from the ethical path.

“We try to accomplish several things: think through the practical ethical issues they’ll face as managers. Understanding regulations,” says Badaracco. “We want them to understand the risk of going wrong and encourage them to stay on the right path.”

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