Doing Well, By Doing Good: Foundation of Sustainability at Smeal, An Interview with Gerry Susman 1/3
From dean to donor, an interview with Gerry Susman, foundational leader of sustainability at the Smeal College of Business
In celebration o Earth Day, on April 21st, 2021, our leading research intern Faith Gongaware recently had the opportunity to interview Gerry Susman, a founding member of the Sustainability Advisory Board and Council at the Smeal College of Business. In our three-piece interview, we hope our stakeholders discover the paramount origin of sustainability in research, business development, and critical integration into business education.
When you earned your PhD in the 1960s, the conversation surrounding sustainability was very different than that of today. At what point in your education/career did you begin to recognize sustainability was an issue of importance? How do you think that recognition has progressed over time and do you feel that your background in human behavior has influenced your understanding in any way?
Being a student in the 60s, I don't remember very much about a topic that would be called sustainability. My first recollection was meeting a professor of zoology or biology and he talked about a coming crisis at a world level related to climate, biodiversity, and ecosystems. I read articles by Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, so I was becoming more aware. I remember Love Canal being polluted by a local company causing illnesses in the nearby community and Lake Erie being literally on fire in the late 1960s. But in the 1960s it was in the background, it wasn’t a dominant thing. There was no epiphany, no moment in which I said “I’ve got to do something about this.” I started taking this seriously in 2006 when I saw Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” and his photos of the North Pole, South Pole, and glaciers disappearing. It was percolating below the surface and began to emerge at that time.
A somewhat recent development in sustainability has been the debate on expanding the definition to include social responsibility more broadly. This year in particular, these concerns have been exposed through a reckoning in the US with systemic racism, income inequality, and health/environmental injustices. How do you feel these concerns fit into sustainability and working toward a sustainable future?
My concern with sustainability was more related to limited resources on a planet that was going to have 10 billion people by 2050 and nowhere near adequate resources to feed people, to house them, etc. I didn't integrate other issues until later; they were separate, important issues to me, but I didn't put them into sustainability. I always knew about corporate social responsibility which broadly dealt with issues of diversity. From a company point of view, you really ought to be drawing on the best human resources you have and if you aren't drawing upon a full population of people, you're doing a great disservice to yourself, aside from the justice and the important value of equal opportunity for all. Companies need to think more broadly than just what they're doing to produce a product: integrating the two is valuable and will lead to a more inclusive movement or recognition by more people. I say things like “doing well, by doing good,” and it is powerful for companies to be able to think that way. I usually don't make a pure moral argument, I try to make the case about the best interest of the company long-term. Generally what's in a company's best interest long-term is to be sustainable and that means reaching out to communities and being as inclusive as possible.
You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that faculty interest in sustainability research was one of the original reasons you began pursuing the area. What led you to the decision that sustainability was worth investing in and that you wanted to be the person to take the lead on it?
One thing that I wanted to do as Associate Dean for Research was to interview all the faculty on what their research interests were. At the time, I had just been nearing completion on a project on solar and wind industry growth for the Appalachian Regional Commission. I had attended more conferences on solar and wind than I could count, read everything there was on solar, and really knew a lot about the industry as it was then. So, with that in the background and my skill of pattern recognition, I saw a pattern emerging as I was interviewing these people. There were many, many faculty members who had an interest in what I would broadly define as sustainability: people in marketing interested in green labeling and changing people's behavior, people in management interested in corporate governance and different types of board composition, people in supply chain getting biomass from plants into fuel. I sent out an invitation hosting a lunch in May of 2008. I said if you have an interest in what I'm going to call sustainability, then please come to the lunch and bring a paragraph about your teaching and research interest in sustainability. I had 28 takers out of 95 faculty members for the first lunch. When reviewing grants, meeting with other Associate Deans on the University Research Council, and knowing about the university wide Institutes for Energy and the Environment, I started to realize we, in Smeal, were somewhat isolated from other colleges. Other colleges were doing joint research ventures and we had very few. I didn't think they knew what we had to offer and we weren’t reaching out as much because a lot of our research funding is from companies. That bothered me that we were relatively isolated and I thought we had a lot to offer. I was a little concerned when I attended some meetings that business wasn't there - there were people from all over the university interested in sustainability who felt a very strong moral imperative, but weren’t grounded in what business could do. In fact, they thought of business as the problem, not part of the solution. So I invited all these other people from around the university for the second lunch. And I think they were impressed with us because they learned things about our college that they didn't know before, and of course we in turn were learning from them. I ended up being a member of the task force for the university-wide sustainability strategic plan and I don't know if I would have been invited if I didn't bring these other people in. I think our input grounded some of the pure value people in understanding what sort of strategies and operations were required in order to do something about sustainability. You can't just scold people, you gotta know the right people, resources, and capabilities to do things.