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Create Award-Winning Undergraduate Programs: Lessons from McGill University

Learn how McGill successfully integrated sustainability into management curricula, developing a major and concentration in “Managing for Sustainability.”

Integrating sustainability into management curricula is a complex endeavor. Sustainability is rooted in systems thinking, which crosses disciplinary boundaries. The Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University engaged with this complexity to create two new Managing for Sustainability programs – a Major and a Concentration – at the undergraduate level for Bachelor of Commerce students. The programs launched in September 2014 and were recently awarded the 2014 Dr. Alfred N. and Lynn Manos Page Prize for Integration of Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula.

The Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (MDIIM) led the programs’ creation in partnership with the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Geography. Professor Steve Maguire, Director of MDIIM, shares the programs’ structure, outcomes and advice for other centres.

Two Sustainability Options

  1. Concentration in Managing for Sustainability: Concentration students learn to think and act sustainably in traditional business careers. Students must complete five courses (15 credits): a required 3-credit course called Strategies for Sustainability and four elective courses (12 credits) spanning systems thinking, technology, operations, leadership and stakeholder engagement. All courses are housed at the Desautels Faculty of Management.

  2. Major in Managing for Sustainability: This 39-credit program prepares students for sustainability-focused careers in the private sector, consultancies, government or NGOs. Students take six courses (18 credits) at the Desautels Faculty of Management and seven courses (21 credits) through the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Geography. Learning objectives include (1) understanding the role of sustainability across management disciplines, (2) understanding human impacts on natural systems, (3) developing analytical skills and (4) experiential learning. The full course list, including >100 possible electives, is available here.

Learning by Doing

Experiential learning is a central component of the Major. “Students crave real-world experience. They want to test their knowledge, develop skills and be mentored,” says Prof. Maguire. Students in the Major get this experience by completing a sustainability-focused consulting course, an independent study project or an internship placement. These experiences enable students to develop management and organizational skills while addressing real-world sustainability challenges.

Supporting Career Planning

Many management students are keen to learn about sustainability, but don’t understand how to build their academic knowledge into a successful career. To support graduates from both programs, MDIIM has addressed this issue by:

  1. Creating a BCom Sustainability Careers Handbook: This handbook explores how sustainability can be incorporated in different types of positions and organizational models. Students are prompted to reflect on the type of organization they want to work for (advanced in sustainability or lagging) and what type of position they want to target (sustainability focused or more traditional). The handbook also outlines key skills and competencies for sustainability practitioners and helps students find careers aligned with their own values and competencies. The Handbook table of contents is available here. To learn more about creating a similar resource for your students, please contact MDIIM.

  2. Empowering the Career Services team: The Desautels Career Services team has dedicated two advisors to supporting students seeking sustainability placements. MDIIM worked with advisors to provide the resources needed to give students timely, effective advice and help them find placements. They directly educated advisors on the types of sustainability careers available and suggested participants for corporate career fairs and workshops. MDIIM also recommended supplemental resources advisors could purchase for students, like books, websites and webinars.

Program Outcomes

Although the programs only launched in fall 2014, there have already been positive outcomes at Desautels including:

  1. Legitimizing sustainability within mainstream programs: When MDIIM announced it was considering the launch of sustainability programming, Prof. Maguire discovered a pent up supply of new course ideas. Faculty members who had been pondering the creation of sustainability courses in accounting, information systems and operations not only had their ideas supported and legitimated, but found they had like-minded colleagues across multiple areas. In fact, several of McGill’s new courses were co-proposed by faculty members from different areas and are currently co-taught. New courses were also added as electives in existing traditional Concentrations. Thus, even students who do not enroll in the Managing for Sustainability Concentration are now being exposed to sustainability.

  2. Embedding sustainability within the Faculty’s culture: Faculty and staff are beginning to see that sustainability means more than conserving paper and turning off lights. They’re starting to understand that sustainability provides a rigorous approach to doing things across all management functions. This cultural shift has been particularly evident with employees who directly interact with students. “I’ve spoken with advisors who have expressed that helping students choose courses or find careers where they can make a difference adds a new dimension to their role,” says Prof. Maguire.

  3. Providing a signalling mechanism to employers: Bachelor of Commerce students graduating with the Managing for Sustainability designation are well-positioned when entering the job market. The designation signals to prospective employers that graduates combine traditional management skills with a solid understanding of environmental science, social systems and stakeholder expectations.

  4. Strengthening cross-departmental and cross-faculty partnerships: The creation of Managing for Sustainability programming was only possible through extensive collaboration. Formal collaboration between faculty members from across campus has helped build collegial relationships and a pipeline to connect students with relevant opportunities on campus.

Advice for Curriculum Development

Are you trying to advance sustainability teaching at your school? McGill’s team offers advice for creating award-winning sustainability education:

  1. Consult broadly: Sustainability is interdisciplinary, so you’ll need to build strong relationships with a diverse group of faculty members from across campus. You should also consult with current students to understand the types of experiences and careers they seek. Finally, to ensure the curriculum builds relevant competencies, draw on the insight of practitioners and alumni within your networks. They will help you understand the real-world management challenges that future employees should be prepared to address.

  2. Understand your unique value: Sustainability programs exist at universities around the world. It is important to understand the value proposition of your program so you can market it effectively. Interdisciplinarity is what makes the McGill Desautels Managing for Sustainability programs distinctive. Graduates of the Major have a rigorous education in natural and social sciences in addition to a foundation in management studies. Those completing the Concentration benefit from courses that cover different areas of business expertise. The Concentration combines more management disciplines than any other Concentration at Desautels. Ultimately, these programs expose students to multiple perspectives on value – economic value, ecological value, social value – allowing them to enter the workforce as adaptive, empathetic and resourceful sustainability professionals.

More Information

Visit the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management or contact MDIIM directly.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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