Business Schools Blazing Trails in Social Impact Management

Aspen Institute's biennial ranking considers environmental and social stewardship.

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Businesses with a focus on ecological sustainability and social responsibility have gained significant traction in today's marketplace, so it only makes sense that top M.B.A. programs have responded to the changing tides by ramping up course offerings that cater to tomorrow's "green" leaders. For b-school applicants trying to narrow down which programs will allow them to earn a respectable living without checking their environmental, ethical, and social concerns at the door, the Aspen Institute's recently released Beyond Grey Pinstripes biennial ranking helps clarify any murky waters.

Unlike other popular rankings focusing on return on investment, starting salaries, or survey feedback from deans and M.B.A. admissions, this report is unique in that it's the only evaluation focusing exclusively on what is taught—the intellectual framework and what skills and knowledge students can expect to take away, explains Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program, which conducted Beyond Grey Pinstripes.

[See U.S. News's rankings of top business schools.]

Among other initiatives, the Aspen Institute offers programs that provide business educators with the resources they need to incorporate issues of social and environmental stewardship into their teaching, research, and curriculum development.

This year's survey marked the first opportunity since the global economic downturn to comprehensively measure the extent to which M.B.A. programs have altered the content of their courses, and whether faculty are pursuing research that question assumptions about the role of business in society.

"In all scoring categories used to determine the ranking, business schools have raised the bar," says Samuelson of the Aspen Institute. "There are more courses than ever before with content on social, ethical, and environmental issues, more courses about the role of business as a positive agent for change, more exposure of students to this content, and more research published by faculty on relevant topics."

This year, the top M.B.A. program as ranked by Beyond Grey Pinstripes is Stanford Graduate School of Business. Ranked first in both the 2005 and 2007 surveys, Stanford GSB has bounced back from its fourth-place position last time around. According to the Aspen Institute, the school came out on top based on the number of courses available with social and environmental content, as well as courses that explicitly address the role of mainstream business in improving social and environmental conditions.

For example, through the Center for Social Innovation, launched in 1999 to develop leaders who can solve global social and environmental challenges, M.B.A. students can take elective courses to earn a Public Management Certificate and demonstrate to future employers their preparation for and commitment to addressing public issues. The school also ranked high for creating an environment in which faculty feel free to explore social and environmental topics in their research.

[Read about environmentally friendly M.B.A.s.]

Dezsö J. Horváth, dean of the second-place Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada, notes that businesses are facing increased expectations and demands on the part of governments and the public, adding that more businesses than ever are dealing with the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic issues. "Adopting a broad, triple bottom line approach is more than just good corporate citizenship—it's simply good business management," he says.

With that approach in mind, the school will welcome 20 M.B.A. student-led teams from around the globe next month when it hosts the inaugural International Case Competition in Sustainability, focusing on a case study within Canada's mining industry. The global competition, which will become an annual event, will give enterprising M.B.A. students an opportunity to solve real-world business problems and present innovative solutions to executives working in one of the world's most challenging industries.

[Learn more about the sustainable M.B.A.]

Spain's IE Business School, which climbed from 9th to 3rd place in this latest report, features more than 90 courses in the M.B.A. program that include content related to sustainability. "We are convinced of the importance of educating people to make them fully aware of how their decisions can impact an environment, which means reinventing the way we do business," says Max Oliva, director of social impact at IE Business School.

There are some notable—and surprising—absences from the list, however, which may leave some applicants scratching their heads in confusion. Earlier this week, Poets & Quants Editor John A. Byrne provided a detailed explainer of why some schools have opted out of participating in the Aspen Institute's project. M.B.A. programs at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Harvard Business School, and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business feel the survey is too time consuming and fails to accurately reflect a program's commitment to social issues, writes Byrne.

While all laud and share the goals of Beyond Grey Pinstripes, some schools feel that the project's methodology is flawed in that it doesn't take into account extracurricular activities, conferences, or centers for sustainability available to students.

Shortcomings aside, Beyond Grey Pinstripes does a remarkably thorough job of providing the next generation of global business leaders with the information they need to focus on responsible decision making, and to examine the social and environmental context in which business operates and thrives.