Campus Curricula and the Common Good: Filling the Gap

Guest Commentary by Joe McCarty, Occasional Contributor, The Murninghan Post

The TakeAway: To inaugurate MurnPost’s “Voices of Young People” section, Joe McCarty writes about the failure of undergraduate business schools to equip students with the knowledge and competence necessary for building sustainable prosperity and justice. Students can organize to help fill gaps in the curriculum, and persuade colleges and universities to do a better job.

We are currently witnessing a turning point in the way individuals, corporations, and governments view their impacts on the world. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement exposed the frustration and anger of its participants and supporters over the way many businesses are run. OWS was and continues to be a contributor to the growing collective perception that corporations need to do better – both socially and environmentally. Because corporations are run by people, it is the people affiliated with them who must change their views and behavior about the purpose and function of corporations in society. This includes board members, managers and other employees, suppliers—even customers and shareholders, and others in the stakeholder ecosystem.

But one demographic that’s overlooked in the rapidly-growing, overlapping fields of corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and responsible investing: the people who are currently being taught in our business schools about how corporations are and should be governed and run. On this front, there’s a lot of work to do.

We need to instill in these malleable and ambitious minds an appreciation for the urgency of social and environmental pressures and opportunities affecting capital markets and corporate enterprise. Only then can we be confident that a new generation of business leaders will chart our corporations (and capital) on a course characterized by civic responsibility, sustainability, and justice.

History has shown that corporations cannot sustain themselves on foundations characterized by shady business practices and questionable ethics. Product boycotts in response to sweat shop exposures, bankruptcy due to financial trickery, and public outrage over unfairness and greed all have an impact on companies’ financial bottom lines and their reputation. They represent a form of social risk that has real impact.

The same risk management problems will arise if companies continue to disregard their environmental impacts. In addition to the already harmful and visible effects of pollution and waste, the evidence continues to mount that emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, pose very real threats to everything we hold dear. Many managers continue to hold the dangerous notion that concern for social and environmental impact is an impediment to financial success.

I believe that in the future, successful corporations will be the ones that have significantly positive social and environmental impacts while also maintaining financial profitability. The sooner business leaders understand this, the sooner corporations can begin to undo their damage and become responsible members of their local and global communities.

Undergraduate Business Schools Lacking

Business schools are in a great position to give momentum to this movement. But to do so, they need to have curricula instilled with the right ideas, and instructors and staff eager to disseminate them. Managers needs to possess knowledge about the impacts of companies’ practices on their environments, both direct and indirect, if they intend to improve things. Schools should thus include in their core and elective curricula courses teaching about the impacts corporations are having today, the steps that can be taken to improve these impacts, and the feasibility and likely results of these efforts. Such courses should give students both an appreciation for the necessity of significant change in business models, as well as a toolkit of ideas and practices to help achieve it.

Unfortunately, today’s undergraduate business school curricula tend not to include these important lessons. Core courses are meant to cover the basics of business administration, such as finance, accounting, marketing, operations, human resources, and information technology. All of these are critical to rounded business knowledge, but so is an understanding of corporate social and environmental responsibility.

One prominent example: the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. The Ross School offers what is consistently ranked by U.S. News and World Report, Businessweek, and Forbes as one of the top five to ten undergraduate business programs in the country. Yet the Ross School is substantially lacking in courses that delve into the important topics of social responsibility, sustainability, and impact. Out of approximately 80 courses (excluding independent study projects) currently offered to BBAs (Bachelor of Business Administration), only four deal with corporations’ social impacts; none of them address environmental impacts.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for most of the country’s top business schools, the exceptions being their graduate programs. This hole in business school curricula needs to be filled.

A Modest Proposal: Collective Action and Curricular Reform

Current students of undergraduate business programs can pool their collective interests in corporate responsibility by organizing formal and informal groups. These student groups, possibly taking the form of official student clubs, can network with each other and leverage their differing knowledge about available options. When college courses don’t offer what students are looking for, they can use each other to learn about courses offered elsewhere in the university (if applicable), clubs with related goals, and volunteer, internship, and full-time positions available in their field of interest.

In the long run, students should be able to influence their schools’ programs so that they include courses more closely aligned with what students want and are willing to pay for. This influence can begin with faculty-student meetings in which both student interests and business school intentions are made clear and open to discussion.

The goal of both students and administrators is to have a curriculum that prepare the students for their professional careers. The question they face now is, which types of courses and teachers are best equipped to do so.

Education for the Common Good

Throughout this gradual transformation of social conscientiousness and environmental understanding, corporations (and capital markets) will play a key role. The people who run them need to have both an appreciation of the direct and indirect effects of their practices on the world, as well as knowledge and competence to improve it. Business schools have a responsibility to sense, anticipate, and prepare students for the evolving trends of corporate responsibility, sustainability, and stewardship in business administration. This evolution is more salient now than ever. That’s why students and their colleges must work together to develop programs and resources that equip tomorrow’s leaders for meeting the social responsibility and justice challenges that lie ahead.

Joe McCarty is a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. He has an interest in sustainable development and urban planning, with emphasis on transportation. He will begin an intern position in the Marketing, Sales, and Service division of Ford Motor Company in May 2012.

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