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Center Spotlight: Former Education Chair, Professor Ronald Johnson

In this interview with Professor Ronald Johnson, previous Education Chair for the Center for the Business of Sustainability, I was able to highlight his continued dedication and excitement surrounding the work the Center has done. Johnson has been involved with the Center since its inception and offered valuable insights into the history of the Center and a look toward future successes it is working toward. 

Why did you begin working with the Center and choose the role of education chair? 

“I have worked with the Center directors all the way back to the year 2000. The original Center director was Gerry Susman, and he continues to be one of the great supporters of this work. For years Gerry and I took students out to visit companies and hosted conferences around sustainability, and I was teaching sustainability in a couple of the graduate programs – we were both heavily involved in sustainability.  

So, when Gerry came on and said we’re going to start a strategic plan for Smeal, which was the first strategic plan of all colleges for sustainability, Gerry pulled me on that team. I was also on the Sustainability Council and on the Sustainability Advisory Board. I had probably been out to about 400 different companies at that point to talk to them about their businesses, take students to visit, and conduct sustainability audits, so it was just natural for me to serve on those groups.  

At the same time, in fall of 2011, the college asked me to leave my dual engineering and Smeal role and in place, develop a new course – BA342. That is a course every Smeal student must take before graduation, and in that course, they will learn about sustainability.  

BA342 has since morphed into a leadership competency course with ethics, diversity, and sustainability. It’s the one place in Smeal where every single student is guaranteed, you can’t graduate, if you don’t come up against sustainability. We’ve had tens of thousands of students go through this since fall of 2011.  

Those experiences made me very much so involved in education, so it was natural for me to want to work on the educational side of the house.” 

You mentioned you added opportunities in your teaching to expose students to sustainably conscious companies prior to the Center's establishment. What do you attribute that proactive nature to? 

“I’d go back to Gerry Susman’s influence; the person in the college who really decided to go after sustainability before anyone else was Gerry Susman.  

He came to me with various sustainability projects he was working on, and I saw immediately how important that was and started pulling that into my teaching, having projects with our grad students, and helping him to put on conferences every semester. We did conferences for many years and were building that subject area into grad students.  

I would say our inspiration was Gerry and I think a lot of people in the college would say that.” 

What direction do you hope to see the Center move in going forward? 

“The Center has tremendous opportunities.  

There is more work to do in education – we want every major to catalog what they are doing in that space. Dan Cahoy is doing that right now with the help of an intern; they’re cataloging all the papers written and projects done in research.

So, there is a lot of energy in Smeal around the sustainability subject, but we need to continue to catalog what exactly is going on.  

The Center also needs to build out the work being done with the Sustainability Advisory Board. So not just the advisory board itself, but the offerings. The Center for Supply Chain Research has a couple hundred companies that are partners. We want to become a place where companies from all over consider Smeal to be the place to go because you’ll learn a lot and help your business be better based on the work happening here. The entire business world is going in this direction.  

If you look at the Business Round Table, you can see the purpose of a corporation. What you’ll find is it used to say the purpose is making money for shareholders. About three years ago they finally did what I would call the honest thing and said it’s all about stakeholders. It’s all about understanding everything that is going on socially and environmentally which is sustainability.  

That’s really an interesting dynamic. The best companies in the land are out there right now saying it’s about stakeholders; it’s about sustainability; it’s about environment; it’s about social; it’s how do we play the game well. And that’s how you play the game well.  

The Center is so important to help drive the significance of sustainability through the college and beyond our walls so other people can benefit from the knowledge we have here and we’re engaging people from around the world. 

There is a lot of work to do to take us where we might want to go but the good thing is, even as we’re going through this time of change, there’s still a lot happening. There are still thousands of students being taught about sustainability; there are still researchers working on projects that are going to come out; we still have interns that are working to tell the story. That’s the good thing. I think this is the time of change – we'll see where the change goes to and what format the Center takes but there is tremendous opportunity.” 

What are your next steps as you transition out of your position as education chair? 

“I am still heavily involved in teaching sustainability in BA342, and we are beginning to pull sustainability topics into MGMT301. That’s our first- and second-year students – we want these students to get a good taste of what sustainability is so that when they get to junior and senior year, they get the full-blown education on sustainability. Ideally, they will take other sustainability courses following that.  

I’m also working on a project with PepsiCo surrounding sustainability education with the university. The university used to bring all new students in and would teach them about the basics of sustainability such as something as simple as recycling. COVID knocked that out. There are people working on restoring these systems, but the education piece has been knocked out.  

I uncovered this by asking students in a circular economy conversation, ‘How many of you in the last month have used an aluminum can?’ Virtually everybody raised their hand. Then I asked, ‘How many of you know that you properly recycled that can?’ Less than 5%. So, we have a bunch of really smart students, and they didn’t know that aluminum – one of the most valuable recyclable resources – was not trash.  

All these big, zero waste companies we deal with would be horrified. You’re going to take aluminum that never degrades and land it in a landfill while the energy requirement is ridiculously small to turn it into a new can instead?  

So, we’re working with PepsiCo, and we have created what’s called the Canbe Family.  

The Canbe Family is made from Pepsi Zero Sugar cans and silly faces. There are two 16-ounce cans – mom and dad – and two minis – the kids. We’re pushing with a whole team of students to develop out communication to start having that go all over the university to teach our students that's not trash.  

It’s an interesting project because it’s a university wide project. The recycling system has been renewed since COVID, and there’s a new recycling recovery person working hard at that because we need help repairing the education portion. We’re trying to help with this project. We’re trying to get students to really understand that message.  

There will be 600 students this semester that towards the end of February, will learn about the circular economy of resources. They will find out they aren’t recycling and then we will jump in and learn.  

And they will. It’s called, ‘saving the lives of these poor cans that just want to live again’. We’ve been saving thousands of lives in the past semesters, and we will save thousands of lives this semester.” 


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