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A Greener Path for Business

By Jeff Wakefield Article published February 25, 2003

Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson says that far too often business people and environmentalists only speak to each other in a court. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Matt Wilson is engaging in some decidedly tense banter with the students in his Environmental Research in Business class.

As the group sits patiently, Wilson, an assistant research professor with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics who has a joint appointment in the business school, is cracking jokes as he struggles with coaxing his laptop into disgorging a Powerpoint presentation that will form the basis of tonight’s lecture.

After the empty blue screen finally comes to life, it’s easy to see why Wilson was frustrated. He is not only pumped about tonight’s three-hour class, he’s also prepared. The presentation is a cornucopia of complex graphs, citations, bullet points and graphics.

"He’s very knowledgeable," says senior Kate Winzler, one of 12 undergraduate business and MBA students in the class. "His readings and lectures are taken from a lot of different sources. You could never get that in a textbook."

Like the provocative data he ferrets out for his students, Wilson is himself a harbinger. Within the next two years, UVM will begin offering a formal sequence of hybrid courses that, like Wilson's scholarship, combine study of business and the environment.

"We’re imagining a certificate program or a minor that would involve five or six courses any UVM student could take," says Don DeHayes, dean of natural resources, who is developing the curriculum in partnership with Rocki-Lee DeWitt, dean of the business school, and faculty members from both schools.

To get there, deans and faculty are asking the fundamental questions. "What is business literacy, what is environmental literacy?" DeWitt says. "Once we’ve determined the competencies, we’ll be able to develop the courses."

Butting heads
Wilson is all for this combo-style approach to curriculum development.

When the Institute for Ecological Economics was at the University of Maryland, Wilson regularly attended conferences and seminars on Capitol Hill. He found that business and environmental types "not only go to different schools, they also work in different offices. They never speak with each other except in a court of law, which is the last place to have a dialogue."

Environmental and business interests "have been butting heads for 25 years," says DeHayes, and that conflict is obvious on college campuses. "Students studying the environment tend to demonize for-profit companies, and business students demonize environmental protectionists. If we want to change the world," he says, "we need to find new ways to teach business and environmental studies together." The goal is to "create graduates who are comfortable in the ample middle ground between the extreme positions."

"I’m trying to give students a set of tools they can bring to their future employers, so they can apply the best available data and techniques to strategic decision making" that will get corporate chiefs past the impulse to "hire a team of lawyers and litigate," says Wilson.

According to Rick Bunch, director of business education at the Washington-based World Resources Institute, which conducts a biennial survey of MBA programs for its Beyond Grey Pinstripes Web site, MBA administrators, at least, have gotten the message that combining study of business and the environment is desirable.

"We’ve seen the number of environmental electives increase 50 percent since 1999 at the top 25 MBA programs," he says. In that time he's also observed that "six endowed professorships in areas like sustainable enterprise and environmental management were created compared with only one in the previous three or four years."

UVM’s niche may lie in extending this approach to undergraduates.

"The MBA faculty member’s leading lament is that it’s so hard to shape students in MBA programs," says DeWitt, who directed the MBA program at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Administration before coming to UVM. "Why not try to reach them earlier, when they’re undergraduates? That would make us radically different from the rest of the world."

"What better place to do that than in Vermont?" DeHayes adds, where the landscape itself is the perfect example of how business interests like tourism intersect with environmental protection.

A growing demand
If there’s any doubt that the business world is looking for a new kind of employee, "just ask Union Carbide how much they think about environmental issues," says DeWitt, "or why BP now means ‘Beyond Petroleum.’ "

On the other side of the equation, regulatory agencies, too, may well be looking for natural resources graduates with an understanding of the corporate mindset.

"Staff in places like the EPA or the state natural resources agencies who know how to use market forces to achieve environmental ends," says Bunch, "are going to get things done more quickly and efficiently."

But the proof of the attractiveness of the business-environment proposition to students — and its potential as a recruitment device — may lie in Wilson’s class.

"It’s a joy," says Winzler. "I really look forward to going to class, even though it’s three hours on a Wednesday night. I always leave feeling more enlightened and motivated."