Smeal makes the business case for sustainability

By Lydia Vandenbergh
March 13, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Sustainability leaders on our Board of Advisors have told us that they are looking for graduates with a functional business specialty and an understanding of sustainability as part of a bigger picture,” said Gerry Susman, professor emeritus and director of the Smeal Sustainability Council.

Penn State’s Smeal College of Business has responded to this corporate mandate by creating a Sustainability Strategic Plan that outlines how the college will integrate sustainability into its core undergraduate education. Sustainability will transform Smeal’s present curriculum, as opposed to being an addendum. Every department and related field of study will frame its problems and solutions and apply its concepts and tools in new ways. Further, sustainability will be a decision-making lens for the college’s operations: they will walk the talk.

“What I hear from the students is that this is the coolest material they have ever studied. They never realized that corporations could have such a huge impact.”

— Ron Johnson, Smeal’s Department of Management and Organizations

Since its inception in 1953, Smeal has consistently designed its programs to prepare students for the market’s demands. Sustainability is no different, and the College is integrating the topic into its teaching, research and outreach efforts.

Smeal is the first educational unit to mirror the University’s Sustainability Strategic Plan, and students at all degree levels can already take a variety of courses on the topic. Ron Johnson of Smeal’s Management and Organizations Department teaches Socially Responsible, Sustainable and Ethical Business Practices, a course required for all Smeal undergraduates. “What I hear from the students,” said Johnson, “is that this is the coolest material they have ever studied. They never realized that corporations could have such a huge impact.”

Smeal is developing a secondary option in sustainability for students, to drill deeper into understanding how it applies to their functional specialty. The next stage of curriculum development in the plan is to foster problem-based, experiential learning for students, connecting them to real-world projects.

Corporations such as PepsiCo, Siemens, Alcoa, Avon Products and Caterpillar offer the Smeal Sustainability Council a broad industry perspective and suggest research areas for study and collaborations.

In his former position as associate dean for Research at Smeal, Gerry Susman assessed the research interests of the College’s faculty in 2008 and recognized sustainability as a consistent theme. To spur collaborations on this topic, he helped form the Smeal Sustainability Council, a loose confederation of faculty and unit directors across the University interested in sustainability. A 12-member Board of Advisors serves to keep Smeal abreast of the latest corporate developments in sustainability and align its strengths with issues the members encounter in their businesses. The members, representing a broad array of corporations such as PepsiCo, Siemens, Alcoa, Avon Products and Caterpillar, offer a broad industry perspective and suggest research areas for study and collaborations.

Building on this importance of collaboration, Smeal’s sustainability plan outlines ways to foster collaborations both within Smeal and across college boundaries. Smeal will create a scholar-in-residence program and hold workshops for faculty to promote dialogues on research topics. To assist the college in shaping its research and teaching of sustainability, Smeal will create a Professor of Sustainability in Business position either solely within its college, or as a joint faculty appointment with another college.

Who are the leading researchers in business sustainability, and what are the knowledge gaps? Next fall, the college will support a study to identify the people, issues and opportunities for further study. It is proposed that these initiatives will lead to the creation of the Center for Sustainable Business Research that will focus on  “research on business ecosystems that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.”

“Sustainability is now a big part of every major, and I am honored to be part of this movement.”

— Dan Trushkov, co-founder and president, Penn State undergraduate chapter, Net Impact

Recognizing that “one of the most effective ways to promote sustainability is to lead by example,” Smeal will help its faculty, staff and students help each other adopt better practices. Over the past three years, the Smeal Green Team, comprised of faculty and staff, has spurred changes to building operations, reducing resource use and costs. They sponsor learning lunches for staff and are designing a campaign to help the college’s community become literate in sustainability and the steps they can take to adopt resource-efficient practices. Augmenting these efforts, Smeal will launch a speaker series with distinguished experts, including alumni working in the field. To highlight those in its community who “apply sustainability creatively and effectively in their sphere responsibility,” Smeal also is creating a series of annual awards.

Smeal is making inroads in their goal of “injecting sustainability into the DNA of every Smeal student,” said Johnson, who is helping students create an undergraduate chapter of Net Impact, a national organization focusing on balancing business success with social and environmental progress. Already Smeal has an active MBA Net Impact chapter that has demonstrated the ability to produce significant “impacts” on Penn State. Dan Trushkov, co-founder and newly elected President of the undergraduate chapter, is proud of Smeal’s efforts and said, “Sustainability is now a big part of every major, and I am honored to be part of this movement.”

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Last Updated September 20, 2019