Fertile Ground in Executive Education

When executives hear the word ''environment,'' they tend to think ''burden,'' but one executive-education program hopes to prove that sustainable business is a growth area where they ''can use finance as a tool to add value.''

At the University of Virginia, the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration has developed a rare hybrid: an executive-education program on sustainability, combining corporate concerns with environmental interests. But at first, this program seemed much like a delicate flower that might die on the vine.

“Sustainability and Beyond: Business Leadership Through Innovation and Design” is one of the few open-enrollment executive-education programs that specifically address business and the environment. At most schools, such as Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the environment is addressed under the rubrics of strategy or leadership.

Stanford also covers it as part of “nonmarket” issues such as ethics, according to Gale Bitter, associate dean of executive education. “The environment is a cost issue, it has ethical implications — it’s part of the balanced scorecard,” she explains. “Firms are understanding that they don’t exist in a vacuum; they can’t just think about shareholder value and profits.” Nor can environmental issues be considered in isolation, adds Bitter; “they affect costs, reputation, many different areas.”

Part of a larger picture: That’s more or less how environmental concerns are treated within the executive education divisions of many other top business schools. “We don’t have any specific programs [on the environment],” says Charles Breckling, marketing director of executive education at Harvard Business School, “but the issues get covered as part of ethics and from a strategy standpoint.” Ethan Hanabury, associate dean of executive education at Columbia Business School, notes that many companies and nonprofits that specialize in sustainable business are enrolling in more-general management courses, but Columbia offers no programs that address the subject exclusively. That’s also the story at Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School of Business Administration, though executive director Clark Callahan points out an initiative on green ventures through the school’s Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship, which investigates opportunities for investing in new ventures “at the intersection of business and the environment.”

This dearth of programs might be explained by the way most executive-education divisions are run — they tend to be regarded by many business schools as revenue-generating opportunities at least as much as forums for education. It’s telling, for example, that most exec-ed administrators refer to program participants as “clients” rather than “students.” Determining which programs to offer executives is largely based on market demand as well as on faculty expertise.

The demand just hasn’t been there. One reason, surely, is that when executives are focused on the short-term demands of the market, the business practices and decisions that affect longer-term environmental considerations can fall by the wayside. Prof. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School observed this very mindset in his preface to the World Resources Institute’s 2002 report “Tomorrow’s Markets: Global Trends and Their Implications for Business.” Wrote Porter: “Business leaders have a tendency to see ‘social’ concerns as having little relevance to competing. Instead, these fall under the headings of corporate citizenship or corporate philanthropy, or are left to managers to address as matters of individual conscience.”

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