Engaging Students in Sustainability Throughout their Time at Business School – Experiences from Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics

While every school engages students, for some schools this is a core part of their DNA. One such school is Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Canada. Even the logo for the school was developed by a current marketing student (see video above). I spoke with Rumina Dhalla, Coordinator for Sustainability and Vice-Chair PRME North America Chapter about their approach.

What is it about your approach to sustainability that engages students so well?

We embed sustainability in all we do, from course curriculum to research, and we measure its impact. In their first term at Lang and throughout their programme, students are introduced to sustainability through our global sustainability leadership presence, co-curricular activities (for example, the Lang Sustainability Conference is our premier annual student event), and community engagement in sustainability related activities such as case competitions.

What are some of the ways you engage students from Day 1 on campus? 

We decided it was essential to find a way to effectively onboard students to our values and introduce them to philosophical frameworks that would help them wrestle with realistic ethical dilemmas in a disciplined and analytical way. A gift from a donor provided the opportunity to hire a faculty member who embraced this challenge and fundamentally reoriented our Introduction to Business course. Every fall, some 850 first year Bachelor of Commerce students, facilitated by senior undergraduates participate in a live case competition called “The Great Ethical Dilemma”. Divided into 176 teams, students receive an urgent “email” from each team’s public relations department informing them of an ethical dilemma that needs immediate resolution. Prior to the presentation, teams conduct an exhaustive company analysis which includes an environmental scan of the political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal forces. This past year Microsoft provided logistical support that allowed us to streamline the scoring process and eliminate the massive amount of paper usually used in these types of events.

What about at the end?

Our students finish off their programmes with a capstone sustainability course where students work on real challenges submitted by industry partners. This provides students the opportunity to apply their learning to real world problems. Students pitch (remotely in 2020) their creative business solutions to representatives from participating industry partners.  This year’s business challenges included exploring how to make youth sports equipment more sustainable, creating opportunities that make athletics more appealing to women and developing sustainable solutions to fill the gap in the transportation planning market.  All students are take a required third year course in Corporate Social Responsibility.

What about at the graduate level?

We offer three streams in the MBA programme. One is our MBA in Sustainable Commerce which explores how sustainability can be integrated into modern business operations and practices. The programme explores the operational side of business sustainability, why it is of critical importance and what leaders can do to inspire organizational and social change. Over 70% of applicants choose this stream.  Regardless of the stream, all MBA students are required to take a course on Sustainable Value Creation.   We also have a new MA in Management provides a more research-focused route for students interested in sustainably at the graduate level and our PhD Management program attracts students studying sustainability.

What role do faculty play in engaging students?

One powerful example is the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant project (UGSRP). Founded under the leadership of Professor Bruce McAdams, the UGSRP was created ten years ago to bring students, academics, and industry leaders together to explore issues of sustainability in food-service. It has explored numerous essential issues such as food and water waste, local versus organic, plant versus meat proteins and how food allergy training in restaurants can contribute to greater levels of employee confidence in protecting health and safety of patrons with allergies. Each year student interns are recruited to run the project for academic credit, including hosting a symposium. Students are provided creative freedom to use the project’s platform and often initiate research projects, some that have led to publication in academic journals. Industry leaders are more than willing to participate in projects created by students. Students describe this learning opportunity as one of their most rewarding at the University.

How do you support students interested in exploring sustainability further?

The John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise plays several roles on campus. It supports the creation of companies (78 of which 70% are still operating). One is the Lucky Iron Fish project, a small iron fish you drop in boiling water for 10 minutes that releases a significant portion of your daily recommended iron as an affordable solution for those with iron deficiency. The centre runs a number of business challenges and projects that students can get involved in as well. The latest challenge, called Hack The Farm, focused on the agricultural and food industry in a climate of change. All business founders participating in the Wood Centre’s incubator are trained in sustainability metrics and operations. In 2020 the Centre will also launch an online module in sustainability for start-ups – an unserved niche in incubation education! The Centre uses the Sustainable Development Goals and B Corp impact metrics to support the success of early stage businesses. The Centre also runs a number of events. For example, last year they hosted an event on redefining waste in collaboration with a range of innovative businesses who are disrupting traditional business models to embrace waste reduction initiatives.

How do you measure impact?

Our MBA has ranked in the top 20 in the 2018 and 2019 Corporate Knights Better World MBA.  As a relatively new business school, this ranking helped build our differentiated global brand and was instrumental in securing a $21 million dollar gift, resulting in the naming of our school, after business visionary Gordon S. Lang. We have been ranked as one of the top 30 business schools in the world in a new ranking that looks at the positive societal impact made by business schools, as assessed by its students.

Any advice for other schools looking to engage their students more in sustainability?

Collaboration is key. We plan to establish an institute to foster and support organizational sustainability, and would welcome the involvement of other schools and institutions. Having the dean’s office actively support the initiatives of Lang’s student leaders has been important to our success. The Director of Lang’s Business Career Development Centrewas also given specific responsibility for mentoring student clubs and associations.



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