Sustainability can be controversial. Business schools must exercise courage as they make choices on funding, politics, and research.
Dr. Andrea Prado is Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at INCAE Business School.
Last summer, I facilitated a conversation for business school faculty and staff on “Courageous Conversations.” This session was part of the Sustainability Centres Community Workshop, organized jointly with the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME).
Many of the participants lead sustainability centres at business schools around the world. The mission of most centres focuses on promoting sustainable practices among managers and policymakers, or generating and disseminating knowledge in this field. But these activities can bring us into conflict and controversy.
The session identified some of the challenging conversations that sustainability centres must have with their stakeholders, such as students, donors, the business community, and faculty. To prepare for the session, I reflected on my own experience at INCAE Business School and my role at the Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development (CLACDS for its acronym in Spanish). INCAE Business School and CLACDS operate in a highly convulsive geographic area that not only faces significant environmental but also socio-economic challenges, related to poverty, migration, and insecurity.
I identified three areas to discuss in the session, which I thought would be relevant and stimulating for the participants. These are (1) questionable donor behaviour, (2) public positions on political or social issues, and (3) truly impactful research.
Three Common Controversies for Sustainability Centres
Questionable Donor Behaviour
You might face a situation where the behavior of a potential donor for a sustainability centre is questionable or not aligned with the environmental or social principles the centre seeks to promote. What conversation would you have with this potential donor or members of your institution?
The question about conflicting donors is relevant to many mission-driven organizations. The tradeoff discussed in the workshop is whether centres might want to work with these donors or companies in an effort precisely to help them change. Maybe in order to “move the needle” regarding sustainability practices, sustainability centres might have to engage with these organizations.
The key would be under which conditions the centre would engage. It’s around these conditions that courageous conversations need to happen.
Nevertheless, a sustainability centre turned down a generous donation because the values of the donor and the origin of the funds seemed too misaligned with those of the centre. Courageous conversation led to rejecting the generous donation, despite its usefulness for the centre’s operation.
Public Positions on Issues
Amid political unrest, wars, or social movements relevant for sustainability, what conversations would you have with your university or other authorities to define the public position—if any— of the sustainability centre? This question arises with social movements like Me Too or Black Lives Matter, as well as political events like the war in Ukraine or the dictatorship Ortega-Murillo in Nicaragua.
For different reasons, including security of their staff, sustainability centres might refrain from making public statements. However, courageous conversations often must happen with multiple stakeholders who might expect the centre to engage in multiple ways.
Even without making public statements, participating centres said that they have used such events as opportunities to revise their internal policies, practices, and values. That can require more courageous conversations, with internal stakeholders.
Truly Impactful Research
Finally, how could sustainability centres work on projects that are relevant and impactful for their stakeholders?
Many sustainability centres are focusing their agendas on environmental issues, leaving out the social dimension. Some areas of interest might be more popular with stakeholders and so it might be easier to raise funds to work on them. For example, decarbonization might draw more attention than inequality. But is it as critical?
What criteria do centres use to define the topics that they focus on? Session participants mentioned defining areas of interest according to their potential impact or by stakeholders’ expectations. They said that students and alumni are stakeholders that sustainability centres —and universities in general — should listen to more. Student and alumni interests are often neglected by institutions, which don’t realize that their level of influence, concern, and potential impact related to sustainability is increasing substantially.
Speaking for Oneself vs. Speaking for an Institution
In the session, I intentionally framed questions in the second person: “What would be the conversation that YOU would have with different stakeholders.” I wanted the participants to engage in the discussion as a personal matter. But at some point, a participant said, “We can’t necessarily speak for ourselves, as we are representing our institution.”
I understand the responsibility we all have towards our schools, but centres do not have conversations, people do. Are we the people who must engage in courageous conversations? Even if we are representing our institutions, don’t we have a role to play in defining our institution’s position?
We must ask those questions and answer them first from an individual perspective. Afterward, and understanding our institution’s point of view, we must decide whether we want to have a courageous conversation and with whom. It might be with our own institution.
Courage Is Always Needed
Facilitating this session made me reflect on some of the courageous conversations I still need to have with the relevant stakeholders. I learned from fellow sustainability centre representatives about how they have faced some of these challenges. We will continue to face trade-offs and gray areas when promoting sustainability through our academic institutions. Let us all find the inspiration and strength to have those courageous conversations with family, friends, and stakeholders in our jobs.
Find Out More
Explore more outputs from the 2023 Sustainability Centres Community Workshop, hosted by the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and organized in partnership with PRME.
For more on courageous conversations, see these NBS materials:
How to Respond to a Global Crisis (2022): After NBS issued a statement on the Ukraine War, stakeholders weighed in. Director Jury Gualandris shares lessons about crisis response.
How to Have Hard Talks (2018): Different perspectives can lead to valuable insights. New guidance shows how to find the hidden potential in disagreement.
Powerful Conversations in the Classroom and Beyond (2018): New tools help students communicate better. Faculty and staff can use them as well.