Green Pinstripes: Wharton School of Business Dean Thomas Robertson Talks About Sustainability | OnEarth

Stroll through practically any business school in the country — or any of the fast-multiplying U.S.-style B-schools overseas — and there can be little doubt that an MBA remains a hot commodity. With the start of classes now upon us, business schools are prepping for another near-record year. During this recession, as in past downturns, applications have surged, with candidates looking to use the slowdown to upgrade their credentials.

Just a couple of years ago, this bumper crop might have seemed unlikely. In 2009 the financial meltdown exposed the outsize role played by financial MBAs and math-whiz PhDs in crafting the house-of-cards investment vehicles that all but crashed Wall Street.

Critics pointed to another, deeper cause: a culture of profit at all cost that had been incubated in business schools. “The really grim news for the MBA…is about more than short-term trends,” wrote Matthew Stewart in Slate back in March 2009. “The economic crisis has exposed long-standing flaws…in the very idea of business education.”

If the recession hasn’t dimmed the prospects of B-schools, the crisis of confidence has spurred a flurry of curriculum makeovers at top institutions. Ethics, of course, have come into greater focus. In parallel, there’s been a rising appetite on the part of students and faculty alike to study more sustainable approaches to business. The number of programs emphasizing social, environmental, and ethical issues has been rising steadily in recent years, according to Beyond Grey Pinstripes, an independent, biennial survey of business schools managed by the Aspen Institute.

For a look at how sustainability and post-crash ethics are evolving at an elite business school, there’s no better laboratory than the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, one of the nation’s oldest and largest B-schools and an important nursery for Wall Street talent.

Thomas Robertson took over as dean of the school in August 2007. As the dust from the financial crisis has settled, he has worked to boost the profile of sustainability in Wharton’s curriculum and among its staff. To be sure, Wharton remains strongly focused on finance, even as highly ranked competitors such as Michigan’s Ross School or Berkeley’s Haas School have made sustainability a core commitment. Notably, none of the nation’s top three B-schools — Chicago’s Booth, Harvard Business School, and Wharton, according to Bloomberg Businessweek’s latest rankings — appear in Beyond Grey Pinstripes.

Robertson says Wharton is hoping to change this. Adam Aston, a freelance writer and former energy and environment editor for BusinessWeek, spoke recently with him about sustainability and the greening of Wharton at his office on the school’s leafy campus near downtown Philadelphia.

Sustainability as a business strategy is still the exception, and there haven’t been many successful, mass-market “green” brands. Why do you think that is?

Green business is still quite young. Yet even in that fairly short time, there are some serious questions about whether you can brand green any longer, because the public is so suspicious. To some extent it has reason to be. It’s easier to recall fallen green champions who have failed terribly than it is to come up with green success stories. BP is a poster child for this. The company emphasized for years how green it was, even as the environmental concerns about its operations were mounting, and then the problem spiraled out of control with the Gulf oil spill. Companies have to be careful. They should first ask, do green claims really differentiate our product, and should we be emphasizing that? If so, are those claims credible? Will consumers believe us? There’s a lot that can go wrong, so it’s no surprise that companies remain shy.

Are you hesitant to brand Wharton as a greener business school? You don’t appear in the Beyond Grey Pinstripes rankings, for example.

Wharton has had a funny love/hate relationship with rankings in general. A predecessor of mine, along with the deans at Harvard and a few other institutions, decided some years ago to stop participating. But the ranking services rate us regardless, using information from outside sources. Beyond Grey Pinstripes is among the most demanding, because it requires that we survey the content of individual courses to identify which ones have green content. However now we’re cooperating again for the first time in a long while, and we have full-time people substantially dedicated to answering these requests. The Aspen Institute is probably the most reputable place out there ranking green initiatives in schools. It’s a good place for us to be, whether someday we come in first or thirtieth.

Did you pick up any shift toward greener goals since the financial crisis?

The aftermath of the crisis has reinforced one of the longest-standing strategic pillars of the curriculum at Wharton: social impact. From environment to labor and other social dimensions of business, there’s very much a belief here that business schools must be a force for good in the world. Even so, this is the biggest school in the country. We have 4,900 graduate students plus a few hundred undergrads. And some of our alumni do still go astray.

Do you have any star faculty members working on green issues?

One is our vice dean of social impact, Len Lodish, who also leads Wharton’s Global Consulting Practicum. Among other things, this sends groups of MBAs overseas to apply business skills to solving social and environmental problems. One team recently went to Botswana, for example, to help develop a sustainable funding model for a health partnership. I’d also mention Eric Orts, the director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. Eric is a lawyer and tends to come at these issues from that perspective. He argues that business as usual is quite likely to lead to major environmental catastrophes, and he’s pushing for Wharton to get ahead of the curve on these issues. It’s clear that sustainability is here to stay. I think it has come into its own as a business priority. We all realize that we’re going to destroy the planet if we don’t get on board.

In many business schools, the interest in sustainability is coming from the bottom up, from the students.

It’s true. A lot of student efforts are bubbling up here. Emily Schiller graduated with an MBA from Wharton in 2009 and chose to stay here to become the school’s first associate director of sustainability and environmental leadership.That role grew out of her involvement, when she was a student, as co-chair of Net Impact’s North America Conference, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit events focused on sustainability. She also works with our Student Sustainability Advisory Board, which takes student suggestions and so far has turned them into real savings of more than $100,000. One of their ideas now is to switch to natural cooling of our data center in winter, rather than using air-conditioning. If it’s cold outside, why not take advantage of that?

Sidebar: NRDC FOCUS — Peter Malik, Director of NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation

If business schools could choose one thing to enhance their focus on sustainability, what would it be?
Mortgages. The housing market has to be one of the drivers of economic recovery, but it’s still under severe pressure. Unsound lending practices were partly responsible for the mess, and we need to scale down the role of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in underwriting private-borrower risk. Banks should also incorporate sustainability criteria into mortgage scoring and pricing. Live in a mansion and drive a Hummer, and you’ll pay more. Live in an energy-efficient apartment and walk to work, and you’ll pay less.

Learn more about Location Efficient Mortgages.