Julia Christensen Hughes
Founding Dean, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics – University of Guelph

Placing Sustainability at the Heart of Business Education

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  1. Business schools should provide management and entrepreneurship programs that put leadership, ethics and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals at their core. They should also encourage students from other programs to develop business acumen and leadership skills.
  2. Although Canada’s global brand emphasizes environmental preservation and social cohesion, we do not always measure up. Successfully addressing these issues will provide opportunity.
  3. University ranking systems must be reformed to better emphasize the student learning experience as well as contributions to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


The federal government should host a national annual competition in which university students collaborate across disciplines in order to solve Canada’s biggest sustainability issues. Such a competition would engage young Canadians who are seeking to make a positive impact in Canada and the world.

What is right about business education in Canada today and what needs improvement?

There is a lot that is right about business education in Canada. Deans across the country are committed to their students and to fostering effective relationships with the business community and the professions. Students in business programs are better positioned when it comes to career opportunities. Data shows that their salaries outpace graduates of many other programs, and there is diversity in the careers they can pursue. Student competitions, co-op work terms, and applied teaching methods, including problem-based learning, make it worthwhile to pursue a business degree in Canada.

That said, improvements can be made. We need to continue to enhance offerings in entrepreneurship with a focus on ethics and sustainability. Further, many business schools historically operated in a highly insular way, and that needs to continue to change. Instead of operating as an independent entity on university campuses, business schools need to find ways to lower the drawbridge and let other students in. Every university student, regardless of their program, can benefit from developing business acumen, entrepreneurial instincts and leadership skills. Management, broadly defined, is a skillset that can propel careers, organizations and communities. 

How should the Canadian entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow be prepared to deal with pressing global issues? 

We live in a highly uncertain world. Students are bombarded with images of environmental devastation, social injustice and other pressing problems. They do not want to feel hopeless. That is why you see people like Greta Thunberg resonating so strongly. We can help by preparing them to be effective problem solvers and change-makers. That requires a different kind of education.

I am a strong advocate for interdisciplinary student teams tackling the problems of our time.Students need increased curricular flexibility in order to do so. We need to provide students with the opportunity to develop depth of knowledge in specific areas, but also to work with students from other disciplines, because that is where problems are solved. That is where the magic happens.

At the University of Guelph we have an award-winning course called the Ideas Congress (ICON), where we take on a different issue each year. This year, the course is partnering with the City of Guelph and is tackling the problem of single-use plastics. Students are coming together across fields to research the problem and present recommendations to city council. There is a real client, a real problem, a sense of urgency, a respect for multiple disciplines, and excellent faculty facilitators. When students learn how to work with one another to solve real problems, they also learn how to apply their knowledge in meaningful ways. That’s what we need more of.Courses like this can give students hope that their abilities and ideas can make a difference.

As well as helping to solve local problems, we need a thoughtful curriculum where we look at issues from a global systems point of view. The University of Guelph is known as Canada’s ‘food university,’ so we emphasize the global food supply chain: What is the reality for people working in subsistence farming? We had a team of students that went to Guatemala to research how to improve the lives of coffee farmers through social enterprise. We then partnered with Planet Bean, a local coffee company that is committed to fair trade across the supply chain. We are not just teaching about global supply chains, but providing support for a cooperative business model every time we buy a cup of coffee. 

How do you see the intersection between business sustainability and social responsibility? How is Canada doing on this front?

Since the United Nations came out with the Global Compact—a pact to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt socially responsible policies and practices —we have seen a lot of progress. This led to several Canadian business schools, amongst 800 globally, that embraced the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. Lang has been recognized as a “champion” within this group, and as a result, I have been included in several World Economic Forum meetings in Davos to discuss the future of business education. I was particularly pleased to see the recent announcement by The Business Roundtable, acknowledging that there must be more to business than driving shareholder value. That we need to take a balanced approach, and value all major stakeholders—including customers, employees, communities and shareholders—to stay in business for the long run.

I have heard senior leaders, who may have been late to embrace sustainability, admit that they now realize they have no choice given that quality employees are now demanding to work for organizations whose values align with their own. It is interesting to see that employees and customers alike are increasingly expecting CEOs and brands to engage politically and make statements about what is happening in the world. Successful businesses will be ones that can navigate this complexity authentically, and demonstrate their commitment to ethical business practices.

In many ways Canada has an excellent reputation, but there is much more to be done. Canada brands itself globally as having a pristine environment and as caring deeply about sustainability. Think glaciers, pine trees and moose. This plays well internationally, when selling high-end ice wine and parkas, but unfortunately, our reality does not always measure up. Why are we not making faster progress ensuring that all First Nations people have access to safe drinking water? What about the fact that we are still dumping raw sewage into rivers and oceans, or shipping our garbage overseas? Where is our moral credibility? I think there are clear areas where Canada can and should be taking a leadership role and where creative business solutions could provide sustainable options that would help our economy, and that the world could benefit from—like new products made of recycled plastics or the shift to renewable energy. I think Canada has the opportunity to lead on the world stage, but we also need to make the changes that are so badly needed within our own country.

What would you like to see from the federal government in support of academia’s efforts to tackle the biggest challenges faced in Canada and the world?

Government can certainly have an impact through its interactions with academia and our students. I would like to see the federal government build on its experience with the global Grand Challenges program and introduce a “made in Canada” version, targeting Canadian challenges that are associated with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Problems could be of the kind I mentioned earlier—access to safe drinking water, the single-use plastics problem—or food security in remote regions of the country, for example. 

These are the grand challenges of our time and university students, properly facilitated by teams of faculty, may come up with innovative ideas to help solve them. At the very least, students would develop increased awareness of societal challenges, along with enhanced research, teamwork, leadership and communication skills. What I’m suggesting is an annual competition where teams of students first earn appropriate academic credit by spending a semester, a year or longer studying a specific issue that is identified as a priority by the Federal government. Then the best ideas move forward for presentation on the national stage. I envision a team of judges quizzing the students in Dragon’s Den style. The students from the winning team may receive support to further develop their idea into a business or receive internship to see their idea, in whole or part, being put into action. Student teams would ideally be mixed; combing students from STEM disciplines with those from the arts and business. I think such an approach could galvanize interest on campuses across the country and create a sense of optimism and momentum amongst students with respect to their ability to truly be the leaders of tomorrow, in helping resolve some long outstanding social issues. 

Are the Sustainable Development Goals properly integrated into our curricula, academic ecosystem and approach to business education?

Some universities in North America are only starting to explicitly talk about the SDGs, while others have been engaging with them for a long time—formally or otherwise. I was delighted to see the UN launch the University Global Compact this September, in support of their further adoption. The six commitments of the Compact are worth reading, beginning with commitment number 1: “Increasing students’ understanding of the most pressing challenges facing the world today as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals, and inspiring students to play an active role in driving change and finding new solutions”.

There is no question that we are living in a crucially important time for the future of humanity and the health of the planet, and that universities should be fully aligned with this agenda.One of the things I am exploring, now that my term as dean has come to an end, is how might I help facilitate interested universities’ further engagement with the UN’s SDGs. What do the SDGs mean for the curriculum broadly speaking? How do they align with research funding and the interests of faculty? How might they effect how universities engage with communities and organizations, both local and further afield? And who will provide the leadership for any needed changes? 

A few years ago, the University of Guelph hosted the first meeting of the Deans and Directors Cohort of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI). This was a group I helped found in conjunction with the GRLI, in order to provide a unique forum for university leaders who are committed to advancing systemic change. In this group, academic leaders share not only what they are attempting to change, but also the strategies for change they have found to be most useful. The academy is steeped in tradition with highly entrenched systems. Even the most simple of changes can be surprisingly difficult and time consuming to bring about. And, university administrators promoted from the ranks of the professoriate, are not necessarily well schooled in leading complex, system-wide change. But that is what is needed. 

Two related challenges that can constrain academic innovation towards sustainability are accrediting systems and university rankings.Thankfully, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—a global accrediting body for business schools—recently added sustainability as a key point of emphasis. I don’t know to what extent accrediting bodies for other disciplines have done the same. Up until recently, business school rankings have been far less visionary, with rankings in MacLean’s, for example, being largely driven by the total number of faculty research publications, which preferences traditional subject areas. Other rankings narrowly place a premium on the increased salaries of MBA graduates, which disadvantages programs that are not exclusively focused on producing investment bankers, for example. Fortunately, Corporate Knights, which annually ranks the most sustainable corporations in the world, also ranks the most sustainability-focused MBA programs, using a variety of verifiable metrics, including the content of courses. Having such a ranking brings important credibility to business schools that are committed to contributing to sustainability, by producing skilled management graduates for a variety of careers, including NGOs and social enterprises.

I facilitated a discussion on the issue of business school rankings last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Participants agreed on the need to fundamentally change the traditional approach. Collectively, we submitted a report to the Financial Times that has committed to rethinking its approach. Changing the metrics, can make all the difference when trying to bring about sustainable change.

Julia Christensen Hughes
Founding Dean, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics – University of Guelph

Julia Christensen Hughes is the Founding Dean of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph, where she served as Dean for ten years. Prior to this, she was the Chair of the Department of Management. Julia is an accomplished management scholar and an advocate for change within higher education focused on improving the quality of teaching and learning and its impact.

The Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics offers a number of specialized programs in business and economics across undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The School is committed to developing leaders with a social conscience, an environmental sensibility and a commitment to their communities.