Thinking in Systems

Why Presidio Graduate School integrated the SDGs into its curriculum

ShutterstockDavid Arts

This is the second article in Thinking in Systems, a new column from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

Business schools have a unique opportunity — or obligation — to educate leaders in sustainability. Fifteen years ago, Presidio Graduate School launched one of the first MBA programs in sustainable management, in which each course from finance to operations to marketing has triple-bottom-line sustainability at its core. Last year, we embarked upon another innovation: using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the foundation for our Dual MBA/MPA Degree.

After a year-long renewal process that included stakeholder engagement with students, staff, alumni, faculty, board members, industry advisors and international partners, we adopted the SDGs as a unifying framework for our dual degree and integrated three recent awareness-raising publications into the required civic leadership, diversity, and systems thinking and capstone seminar courses: The IPCC Special Report, the World Public Sector Report 2018 (PDF) and a book by Duff McDonald called "The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite."

Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius: The IPCC Special Report

One hundred ninety-five nations in 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement, including its aim to "keep global warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius, and pursue limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius." Without drastic behavior changes, we’ll likely reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by between 2030 and 2052, and 2 degrees by 2100.

Last month’s IPCC Special Report serves as a blaring wake-up call: Two degrees Celsius of global warming will lead to increases in extreme weather events, water stress, crop deficiencies, heat-related deaths, coral reef destruction, sea-level rise and populations in poverty. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires rapid change, including net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050.

"The good news is that some of the actions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are already underway around the world, but they would need to accelerate,” says Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I. 

The report gives policymakers and business practitioners "the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change while considering local context and people's needs," according to Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II. However, she says, more tools for streamlining initiatives within governments and across the public, private and non-profit sectors are needed.

Working together: The World Public Sector Report 2018

The World Public Sector Report 2018 examines efforts in 60 countries to further the SDGs through horizontal integration across government institutions (such as Mexico’s national budget processes [PDF]), vertical integration between levels of government (such as Colombia’s SDG reporting format [PDF]) and stakeholder integration across public, private and non-profit organizations (for example, the Netherlands Global Goals Charter).

The report finds governments across the globe revising old structures and creating new processes to coordinate multisector SDG implementation, but repeats an important punchline: Achieving the SDGs will require collaboration at a scale and pace that has not been seen before. The report also highlights the need to strengthen monitoring capacities and education campaigns. 

A call for change in education: 'The Golden Passport'

The SDGs in general, and the specific need for global net carbon reductions as soon as possible, are motivating many educators to ask ourselves how we can help train and inspire business leaders and policymakers to work toward global common good. 

In "The Golden Passport," McDonald critiques American business schools in general, and Harvard Business School (HBS) in particular, for failing to educate businesspeople to act in socially constructive ways. He focuses on HBS because of its widespread influence and in an interview with Pro-Market, he argued that given its resources, "leading MBAs toward ever-improving models of sustainability could have been HBS’s for the taking."

McDonald's book quotes Dwight Collins, a founding Presidio Graduate School faculty member: "MBA programs traditionally have an accounting track, a finance track, a marketing track….and a sustainability track….one of a menu of items. For us, the only way to do business is to have every one of these topics done sustainably. Our ultimate aspiration is that every MBA program should look like us."

Presidio Graduate School’s most recent curriculum renewal adopted the 17 SDGs as a foundation for the Dual MBA/MPA Degree, spurred the launch of a Center for Civic Leadership & Social Justice and a Center for Sustainable Finance, and requires all dual degree students to be trained on Global Reporting Initiative Standards. In addition, experiential learning projects have been updated to include global cultural competency, multisector partnership and circular economy tools for hands-on application of theoretical learning.

We teach public, private and nonprofit leaders to become multisector systems-thinkers who recognize the useful aspects of existing policies and practices, while simultaneously identifying their problems and potential solutions. We challenge students to use the tools of business and public administration to think holistically, for the short and long term, and to conduct their work in financially, environmentally and socially responsible ways. Because our world needs as many allies for the common good as possible, we hope every MBA and MPA program will join us in educating students to pursue the SDGs.