Engaging with Local Government – Pforzheim University

Despite becoming more global, Business Schools are physically located in a community and are increasingly exploring ways to not just interact with, but contribute to and strengthen that community. At Pforzheim University, faculty and students are engaged in sustainability topics at both the local and national government level on a variety of important projects.

I recently spoke with Juergen Volkert, Professor of Economics, Ethics and Sustainable Development about the school’s work with local government, and got an update on the how business schools in the region are working together. Rudi Kurz, Professor of economics, has added a section on the state of the PRME Chapter DACH, a regional chapter of German speaking countries, at the end of the interview.

Briefly describe Pforzheim University’s approach to sustainability and responsible management education.

Our main goal is to develop the knowledge, skills, and employability of our students as future managers, in a way that enables them to find and implement competent and successful solutions for global challenges. We aim at developing their competences to identify ethical issues, responsibly take advantage of social or environmental opportunities, avoid and mitigate related risks, and be aware of critical issues and limitations of responsible management. We want to provide the necessary foundations to achieve these goals to all our business students rather than training highly specialised experts in very narrow fields.

Discuss your relationship with the state and federal government institutions.

In general, we see a direct relation between governments and the corporate license to operate and sustainable development, thus important to responsible management education. Governments as regulators play a key role in managing or failing to establish a legal and economic framework as a basis of sustainable development. Therefore, besides being an exciting research background, experiences with current political decisions and governance are helpful to develop students’ understanding of political processes. We see this as important to better understand the needs, opportunities, and limitations of responsible management in general, as well as the roles and challenges of companies as political and social actors, also in multi-stakeholder bodies and decisions. In the case of Pforzheim University we depend to a large extent on the financial resources provided by the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. This limits our ability to “greening the campus” (buildings etc.), although the green-red coalition government pays more attention and encouragement when aligned with initiatives like PRME.

What are some examples of the projects that have been undertaken?

Various colleagues engage in different kinds of projects and cooperate with companies, civil society organisations (CSO), and federal or state governments. Mario Schmidt, professor of ecological management, is a member of the Advisory Board for Sustainable Development of the government of Baden-Wuerttemberg since October 2012. Professor Schmidt is co-chairman of the working group “Goals and Indicators”—especially engaged in the development of a two-spheres-approach for sustainability consisting of the sphere “ecological viability” and the socio-economic sphere “needs and good life”. I am also a member of the Federal German government’s group of scientific advisors for official Poverty and Wealth Reports.

A decade ago, a state agency in the state of Baden-Württemberg established a state-wide certificate, the “Ethikum,” which is awarded students who show an outstanding intellectual engagement and reflection of issues related to ethics and sustainable development. At our university, the certificate provides incentives for students to delve into ethics and sustainability topics—not only because the certificate has become a valuable asset in a student’s application to companies. On average, our students make up 45% of all students awarded with the Ethikum, however, the certificate is not the only motivator for our students. For Pforzheim University, the certificate provides the opportunity to identify in which kinds of courses, how, and by which colleagues these issues are being incorporated and adopted into curricula.

What have been some of the challenges working with local government? Successes? Do you feel you are having an impact?

The Federal German government adopted the proposal of a research team, directed by myself, for its second and third Poverty and Wealth reports in 2005 and 2008. The research team had suggested using Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen’s capability approach as a theoretical framework for the government’s Poverty and Wealth reports, and operationalised this in a German setting. Of course, such a complete adoption of a scientific proposal is more an exception than a rule. Often political rationality will result in outcomes that may lack stringency from a scientific point of view or sometimes even ignore better alternatives. However, with respect to political rationality, processes, and governance, the latter cases provides at least as many learning opportunities for researchers as real impacts. As such, they are all “successful,” because they help to better teach political and sustainability governance issues, get into contact and dialogue with international researchers and practitioners, and hence, also foster a PRME strategy.

Green economy is a major challenge and chance for Baden-Wuerttemberg, and Prof. Schmidt is very engaged in supporting the regional economy in implementing a “greener economy.” He considers it an important task to contribute to the sustainable development of Baden-Wuerttemberg, doing this through his consulting activities in different boards. He also shares his expertise with our students at Pforzheim University, especially regarding the newly founded Bachelor-Program, “Resource Efficiency Management,” and the forthcoming Master-Program, “Life Cycle & Sustainability.” The study programme will prepare its students to implement resource efficiency measures in companies and thus to contribute to a greener economy.

What advice would you have for other schools for engaging more with their local governments?

Do not expect a cooperation to have an immediate impact, see it as a valuable learning opportunity with respect to a major responsible management stakeholder. Start in a team with others who are experienced with government relations. Do not only focus on companies and governments but make sure that your university also works with civil society or international organisations to establish a more comprehensive experience base with major responsible management stakeholders.

What are the next steps for this relationship?

As various colleagues already engage in corporate, CSO, and government projects and relationships, we want to further develop these contacts into a “learning experience centre.” The hope is that this centre will bring together the expertise of colleagues from diverse backgrounds within governments, companies, and civil society organisations at our university, and provide practical learning experiences in interdisciplinary teams for our students.

Pforzheim is a member of the PRME Champions group and also initiated the launch of the PRME Chapter DACH, in Co-operation with HTW Chur. Can you give us an update?

We share the idea that Regional Chapters can play a vital role in the advancement of PRME. Here we are adapting PRME to our regional context (of rich developed countries in Europe). In the DACH Chapter, communication is easier based on the common German language and we can also include participants with little English skills. Additionally, dialogue and mutual learning is easier because of short distances between countries.

After preparatory meetings in Pforzheim (January 2013) and Bled (October 2013), we officially launched the Chapter on 21 January, 2014, at MCI Innsbruck, with fifteen founding schools participating. This is a small number, and therefore one of the goals of the Chapter is to increase this number and to find broader support of the Principles.

Almost all business schools in our region do have some components of ethics, sustainable development, or CSR in their curriculum or research. What is lacking is a common understanding of the core elements, learning goals, and pedagogical approaches. The network will help to improve this situation. We are also in contact with all the regional networks of UN Global Compact, and want to establish a close relation with companies to exchange ideas and to learn from each other. Leaders include large global players like Bosch and Siemens, but also a lot of not so well-known medium sized companies which are nevertheless world market leaders (hidden champions).

The next conference will be in Chur, Switzerland, 29 – 30 October, and will focus on mission statements and strategy, as well as on teaching and curriculum development.


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