Sustainable business a new option for downtown MBAs
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This semester marks SF State’s official launch of a new graduate-level sustainable business program that professors say is a first for the California State University system.

For years, an informal group of SF State business teachers discussed the need for environmental and social responsibility in the private sector. This fall, students are learning how to change the way business is done through the new sustainable business emphasis of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate degree program.

“Some schools have had the ‘green MBA’ for years but without a dedicated faculty. We have five dedicated people [advising] that’s unheard of in any business department,” said Denise Kleinrichert, an assistant professor and the newest addition to the “sustainability group.”

“I believe that … in three to five years, 20 percent of our MBAs will want to take this emphasis,” said Professor Murray Silverman of the management department. Silverman estimated 25 to 30 students in the program currently.

“We’re really the first Cal State University to have a sustainable business emphasis,” Silverman said.

Silverman said the program was brought together by combining faculty interest, a growing interest in environmentalism, and concerned faculty.

The emphasis is on a group of four elective courses that MBA students can choose as a specialty, said Kleinrichert.

Students in the SF State MBA program must complete a core of foundation courses, followed by a set of more advanced classes. In addition, every graduate student must choose an emphasis such as accounting, management, or sustainable business.

The emphasis’ reference to sustainability implies more than just environmental concerns. The program teaches students to think in terms of a “triple bottom line.”

“The triple bottom line looks at the health of the organization not only fiscally, but also socially and environmentally,” Kleinrichert said. “We think we have distinction in that we don’t just talk about the greening of business.”

This involves examining all aspects of a business’s activities, from its labor relations to its ecological footprint, Kleinrichert explained. Corporate accountability and transparency are also discussed in the graduate classes, which make extensive use of real-world case studies.

“What we’re trying to do is equip people to transform mainstream business,” said Assistant Professor of Management Bruce Paton, another member of the sustainability group.

“Policies aren’t being made so much in the bowels of the Environmental Protection Agency or in the legislature,” Paton said. “They’re being talked about by interested parties, and then somebody crafts legislation.”

Kleinrichert, who previously taught courses on business ethics and corporate responsibility at the University of South Florida, said the business program has seen increasing student interest in the new emphasis.

Andrew Wilkinson, 26, is in his first year of the MBA program at SF State, with a double emphasis in Sustainable and International Business. He said he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself an environmentalist, but does value the outdoors.

“I have always had an interest in contributing something new and innovative to the world that improves quality of life,” Wilkinson said. He said he learned about SF State’s sustainable business emphasis while working at UC Irvine earlier this year.

“I found an overwhelming value in our culture for unbridled consumption that was largely used as a measurement of success and social status, to which I could not relate,” Wilkinson said, which he realized after getting his bachelor’s degree. “I could not understand why we exploit other people, cultures, communities, environments, or resources, because they are us, and we are them.”

Wilkinson’s observations share a tone with Silverman, who is credited as the prime mover behind the sustainable business emphasis.

Silverman said that after earning his MBA from Stanford University, he struggled with the direction of business in general. He left teaching for eight years and didn’t return until he saw the environmentalist movement begin to push issues of social responsibility and the greening of business into the public sphere.

When Silverman noticed business classes that address these concerns becoming available, he began talking to his colleagues about a new direction for business instruction. He offered his house as a meeting place, and the informal sustainability group began moving toward the creation of a new field of study for SF State students.
“I was probably a misfit in the business world,” Silverman said. “I was the person in the business school with the ponytail.”

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