Sustainability as a Unifying Vision: Reflections on a 10-Year Journey Founding the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics

Lang School launch event

When founding (former) dean Julia Christensen Hughes was appointed in 2009, the University of Guelph in Canada did not claim to have a business school. Instead, they had recently established a College of Management and Economics that brought together a variety of business and social science programmes, some that had been operating for well over 40 years through several independent academic units spread out across campus. The college lacked an integrated curriculum and home but, even more importantly, it lacked a unifying vision.

Sustainability very quickly emerged as a core element of this vision. Today it makes up one of the four pillars of the school, along with 3 other closely related pillars of research with impact, active learning (engaging students in real-world problems) and community engagement.  I asked Julia Christensen Hughes to share her thoughts about her time as dean, what she tried to achieve and her commitment to sustainability.

Where did the focus on sustainability come from?

In order to establish ourselves as a school, and grow in reputation and quality, we first needed to establish a common purpose and a set of core values – something that would provide us with a “True North”. Competitively, we were “completely surrounded”. Less than an hour’s drive away were several well-established, well-ranked, well-funded Canadian business schools (Schulich, Ivey, Rotman, DeGroote, Laurier). Significantly underfunded and lacking brand recognition, we needed to differentiate ourselves from the competition and offer a compelling and creative value proposition.

After about a year of multiple (some raucous) retreats, workshops and focus groups with stakeholders – faculty, staff, students, alumni, employers and advisory board members – we planted a flag in the ground. A clicker vote confirmed almost unanimously that our vision was to “be and develop leaders for a sustainable world”. Shortly after, we also embraced our “pillars” of transformational learning, research with impact and authentic community engagement.  Later, when the school was named and we developed the Lang logo, we added sustainability as a fourth and foundational pillar.

How did you communicate this new vision?

The cover of our first promotional brochure invited students “to be part of the change” they wanted to see in the world. We proclaimed that we were dedicated to helping students develop both the knowledge and the skills they would need to lead meaningful and rewarding lives through active and engaging learning opportunities. We committed to ensuring that what we discovered along the way was widely shared, so that our research would be of maximum benefit to individuals, organizations and society. We also recognized that our goals would be enabled through our commitment to forging authentic partnerships outside the university. By working collaboratively with innovators in both local and global organizations and communities, we believed that our students’ learning and the quality and the impact of our research would be enhanced. All of this still rings true today.

Rather than imposing a commitment to sustainability, we had given voice to essential threads woven across space and thru time. The University of Guelph had long heralded its commitment to “improve life” and the focus and the values of our college turned out to be no different; they were embedded in our DNA. Recognizing the tremendous power of students and alumni as brand ambassadors, we also stepped up support for our student leaders who were hosting and participating in numerous events and competitions, providing them with academic mentoring, meeting space, funding and logistical support. And we launched a Notable Alumni program, sharing stories of our graduates’ commitment to sustainability. Essentially, we reinforced our brand through multiple channels, at every opportunity.

How did you take your sustainability commitment forward globally?

With our vision in hand, one strategy I found to be particularly effective for making further progress, was to connect with other business school deans, through global associations that shared our aspirations and values. This involved becoming an active signatory with PRME (we were the first Canadian business school to be named a “PRME Champion”). We also joined the GRLI (I became a member of the Guardian Group and later the Board), as well as the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans (I became secretary and then vice-chair). In support of accreditation, we became members of AACSB and EFMD.

As a “come from behind” business school, I deliberately sought opportunities for sharing and benchmarking our innovations, collaborating on initiatives and gaining credibility through co-branding. It was therefore a particular honour when in 2015 I was invited to address the United Nations General Assembly in NYC on behalf of over 600 PRME signatories. We also hosted PRME and GRLI events in Guelph, in 2018.

How have you built this commitment into your curriculum?

For several years now we have had a number of innovative required courses in both our undergraduate and graduate programmes focused on sustainability. This fall, we are taking things to another level.  We have launched a complement of minors, including one in Sustainable Business available to any University of Guelph student. I am extremely proud of this learning opportunity, particularly because we received no central university resources in support. These minors provide students with diverse interests such as in agriculture, international development, history, music, biological sciences, or water resources engineering, to develop ethical leadership and entrepreneurship skills (including in social enterprise), along with sustainable business acumen. As we debated this move internally, we reminded ourselves of our vision, arguing that it was “the right thing to do” convinced that these minors would help strengthen our students’ and the University’s positive social impact and long-term success, as well as hopefully attract support from external donors. We committed to becoming a “ubiquitous” business school. Rather than pulling up the drawbridge on an ivory tower and serving an elite student group, we aspired to act in service to all interested University of Guelph students.

What about bringing faculty onboard?

For our vision to be realized we needed to value the diversity we have in our faculties’ interests while encouraging thoughtful change. Initially, this was done through faculty and staff participation in strategic planning retreats and annual operational unit level goal setting initiatives. Alignment was then further encouraged through the bi-annual tenure and promotion process, where faculty were asked to reflect on their contributions to each area of transformational/active learning, research with impact and community engagement. Later, several related teaching and research awards were created and celebrated at our annual summer retreat, as well as in videos and on the school’s website where we asked our top researchers to reflect on the positive impact of their research on society. By getting our most highly respected researchers involved and celebrating their work, we began to more deeply embed these values in our culture and practice. We also established a learning assessment and accreditation office, tasked with helping track our progress and supporting faculty engagement in pedagogical development, curricular mapping, and quality assurance processes.

What were some of your fundraising priorities?

Throughout my two terms as dean, one of the priorities that was never far from my mind was the opportunity to find a donor to name the school as well as an innovative entrepreneurship centre which housed our student incubator program and facilitated student consulting projects in the community, many with a focus on advancing social enterprise. Fortunately, in my final year, both came to fruition, with a $7 million gift naming the John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise and a $21 million gift naming the Gordon S. Lang School for Business and Economics, the largest single donation in the University of Guelph’s history. Both John Wood (now deceased) and Stu and Kim Lang, who named the school after Stu’s father Gordon, believed passionately in our vision and generously elected to support our efforts. Together, these gifts are helping to advance multiple strategic goals, including through 6 named chairs (each with a focus on sustainability) and a sustainability centre, with funds to support faculty and student initiatives.

What’s next, for you and for Lang? 

Since completing my final five-year term as dean (I stepped down in Spring 2019), I am now enjoying an extended administrative leave, working on my own research and contributing to a number of international initiatives. This has included facilitating the 2019 and 2020 Deans Dialogue in Davos (co-sponsored by PRME) and supporting the launch of the new Positive Impact Rating, the first to focus on the positive social impact of business schools, based on the perceptions of students. I also became certified in appreciative inquiry, to support my interest in helping other business schools and organizations make progress towards sustainability.

At Lang, our commitment to sustainability continues to grow, supported by the efforts of many, including Lang’s Sustainability Coordinator Rumina Dhalla, who also serves as Vice Chair of the PRME NA chapter. I understand that a commitment to sustainability also figured prominently in hiring my successor, Lysa Porth, who joins Lang October 1, 2020.

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