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Leading program profile: University of Michigan Ross School of Business

University of Michigan Ross School MBA students win Accenture award

University of Michigan Ross School MBA students win Accenture award (Source: University of Michigan website)

University of Michigan Ross School of Business boasts one of the world's premier examples of sustainable business education and research, the Erb Institute for Sustainability in Business.

About Erb

In 1996, Frederick and Barbara Erb's made a foundational contribution of $5 million to establish the Erb Environmental Management Institute, a joint venture between the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment (now the School for Environment and Sustainability). The Erb's vision and generosity continued totalling $20 million which, according to their website, represented the largest known commitment to university interdisciplinary teaching and research for sustainability.

"Twenty years ago, the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise began with a noble concept: Create a better world by harnessing the combined power of business and science to drive positive, sustainable social and environmental change."

The Erb family gifts and vision of the university gave rise to an impressive institute which is pioneering new ways of educating business students and engaging with markets, leaders, technology, and community.

"The Erb Institute was designed with the intent to equip business professionals with the skills and knowledge necessary to create environmentally, socially and economically sustainable organizations."

Erb Model


Erb Strategic Advisory Council consists of representatives from IBM, Amazon, General Electric, BSR, Dow Chemical, Keurig Green Mountain and the Nature Conservancy. And Erb also has an External Advisory Board which meets more often and enjoys a closer relationship with the students and faculty. Member companies include: Boeing, USAID, Comerica, Growth Capital Network, Panera, and ARAMARK and Schneider Electric.

Ross and School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Courses There are over 30 courses between the two schools they designate as “explicitly focusing on social sustainability and entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility and change management, and environmental energy sustainability.”

A dual degree program allows the MBA to be paired with one of 20 other master's programs so that after three years students receive an MBA and master's degree in another area. One leading example is the combined MBA/MS program focused on environment and sustainability:

"Erb Institute MBA/MS students complete one year of required courses within each school (Ross and SEAS), allowing them to develop an essential knowledge base in both business and environmental disciplines.After completing the core requirements within each school, students typically specialize in a primary area of interest, such as renewable energy, sustainable development, industrial ecology, eco-entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, conservation, green marketing, corporate responsibility, or sustainable production. To serve student interests, the program sponsors several specialized course offerings, which are taught by University of Michigan faculty and visiting practitioners"

The MBA/MS has master's projects and what they call MAPs (multi-disciplinary action projects).

Other Cool Stuff Going On

Erb enjoys partnerships with Sustainable Brands, a leading media and events company advancing sustainable business, and with universities in Cuba around the Research Initiative for the Responsible Development of Cuba (RISDoC).

Erb offers a terrific Erb Library of cases and faculty publications including peer-reviewed papers and what they call "Maize Papers" (scholarly papers that highlight thought leadership) and "Blue Thought-in-Action Papers" (showcase research to action to impact).

And the offer short, mid-term and longer term project-based learning experiences for students at home and abroad. Such as this coffee and climate project in Costa Rica:

Erb is just created a new strategic plan (see below) which is worth checking out. As for most business schools engaging with sustainability, the actual societal and business impact of all this activity is unclear. There is a lag factor in education that makes linking results with pedagogy difficult (but not impossible, see Kirkpatrick and Philips). As for Erb, their graduates end up in consulting, energy and financial services. Students are mostly white with 18% minority and 9% international.

I am sure they are extending the vision of harnessing the power of business for positive change.

Connections to Smeal

University of Michigan Ross School of Business is to be commended for its leadership. And the Erb family's legacy and vision is inspiring. A gift of $20 million and the resulting endowment interest provides a sustainable base of funding that makes possible (but doesn't guarantee) this kind of innovation. There has obviously been strong leadership and execution to realize the vision.

Smeal College of Business is doing much (but not all) of what we see at Ross although our approach is to integrate sustainability into the main business school rather than create a separate institute and pooled set of courses and experiences. There are advantages to this kind of specialization. Some students get to go deep into the content and form a tight community. But there are costs as well. It is likely that the majority of students are graduating with little substantive understanding of the social and environmental risks, obligations, responsibilities and opportunities of business. Who is to say which approach is better. We need all approaches, at all places, for all time.

Erb Five Year Strategic Plan

Erb Five-Year Strategic Plan

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