The Rise of Joint-Degree Programs in MBA and Sustainability

Business schools have developed new joint-degree programs that blend business acumen and environmental stewardship

Today, businesses are not just expected to drive profits. They’re also expected to tackle pressing global challenges, such as climate change and sustainability. Recognizing this imperative, business schools have developed new joint-degree programs that blend business acumen and environmental stewardship.

There is an increasing fusion of MBA studies with a master’s degree concentrated on sustainability or climate change, designed to nurture a new breed of business leaders with a holistic perspective and a commitment to driving positive change.

For example: the Haas School of Business and the Rausser College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley in California recently launched an MBA/Master of Climate Solutions (MCS) degree to prepare the next generation of sustainability and climate leaders.

Berkeley Haas dean Ann Harrison, says the new program will draw from the strength of both schools. “Future business leaders will require a depth of training in both business and climate change to work across disciplines and execute competitive strategies. This new program will provide a breadth of skill sets, equipping our grads to lead in building a sustainable, low-carbon future.”

James Sallee, faculty director of the MCS program, adds: “New research on climate solutions is still critical, but we already know many of the things we need to do to address the climate challenge. What we really need are people spread throughout society and the economy who are in a position to take action on climate, and who are equipped with the tools to make the right choices.”

UC Berkeley is far from alone in offering such programs, with similar options existing at Wharton, which offers a program that combines an MBA and Master of Environmental Studies (MES). Meanwhile, the MS Environment and Resources/MBA joint degree program at Stanford Graduate School of Business is offered with the new Doerr School of Sustainability.

The benefits of integration

Todd Cort, faculty co-director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, says there are key benefits in pursuing a joint-degree program in business and sustainability, as opposed to earning these degrees separately.

“Pursuing separate degrees gives depth in different topics, but does not necessarily connect the dots and provide breadth. You can graduate with an MBA and never hear the words climate change. Similarly, you can get a PhD in climate science and never consider the economics of change,” he points out.

Plus, he says you get the unique opportunity to tailor your education to fit your personal learning journey. “While the work of sustainability professionals is often described as lonely, a joint-degree program challenges this notion.”

Yale School of Management offers the joint MBA/MEM degree, an MBA in combination with a master of environmental management (MEM).

Cort says these types of programs address the growing demand for business leaders with a strong foundation in both management and environmental responsibility. “There is a set of fundamental skills expected by employers today – familiarity with evolving regulations, how to optimize a portfolio and calculate price – that we and other schools include as part of the curriculum.”

In this context, joint-degree programs can play a vital role in fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between business and environmental science, contributing to innovative climate solutions.

Fostering interdisciplinary collaboration

Charlene Zietsma, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School for Environment and Sustainability, says: “Sustainability issues are complex and usually require solutions that draw on interdisciplinary perspectives. When our students speak the language of both sustainability and business, they can bridge the divide between solvers and markets.”

For example: at the University of Michigan, students have the option to earn an MBA from the Ross School of Business and an MS from the School for Environment and Sustainability as part of a dual-degree program at the Erb Institute, which aims to create a sustainable world through business.

“Erb students bring sustainability knowledge to their Ross classes and colleagues, helping others to be prepared for the complex and evolving business environment,” says Zietsma.

And, in applied projects, she says Erb students often develop market studies, business models and go-to-market strategies for scientists, which may become commercially viable innovations.

Navigating student challenges

However, students commonly face numerous challenges when pursuing a joint-degree program. “Dual-degree students can sometimes find it difficult to navigate the social aspects of the MBA, especially if they choose to start their program at their partner school, or if their core-MBA classmates graduate and they are still completing degree requirements,” says Zietsm.

Ross encourages dual-degree students to join MBA clubs and attend events (especially social events) even if they are not yet taking classes at Ross full-time, allowing them to plug into the MBA community and build relationships even when they may not be in the building yet.

Back at Yale, Cort says the need for extra time is particularly crucial in the field of business and sustainability because “these are some of the wickedest, stickiest challenges facing the world”.

It could be well worth the effort, though, given that employers perceive candidates with joint degrees in business and sustainability positively. That’s because these candidates bring advantages to the workplace.

“With a dual degree in business and sustainability, graduates add value to an organization with leadership, change management and teamwork skills. They also have knowledge about sustainability issues, practices and regulations, as well as a passion for positive change,” says Zietsma at Michigan.

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