Societal and Sustainable: The 21st Century University

SDG-The-University-of-the-21st-Century

The societal aspects of education provide some of its main benefits, its purpose being to contribute to society’s welfare. Universities should accordingly produce responsible and accountable leaders in their respective domains through education. However, higher education’s quest for revenue and reputation has led universities to sideline or even neglect this stated societal purpose. While it is certainly true that a reduction in (public) funding with simultaneously increasing costs impels universities and especially business schools to run as quasi-businesses, it is concomitantly the case that businesses are strongly called upon to act for the good of society at large instead of, e.g., only increasing shareholder value. Consistent with Sustainable Development Goal #4, Quality Education, the 21st Century University should refocus on its primarily societal purpose both in its teaching and research activities as well as in its operations.

With respect to teaching, faculties regularly discuss whether curricula should include a dedicated course on ethics and/or sustainability, or if modules on these topics should be part of every course. Actually, both should be done: with no dedicated ethics and sustainability course, it appears as if these domains are not of equal importance to the other mandatory courses in the program. However, core courses on ethics and sustainability are clearly not enough. In addition, ethical questions and discussions on sustainability should be integrated into all courses across a program’s curriculum. Imagine a finance professor who never mentions ethics, a law professor who never addresses an attorney’s ethical responsibilities or a structural engineering lecturer who never discusses sustainability or energy efficiency. Such inconsistency would render a dedicated course on ethics and/or sustainability more or less a farce.

A more complicated question is that of professors’ research influencing their teaching. Should a professor be encouraged to research only subjects with immediate or direct societal benefit? This question in itself will quickly become ideological in nature when taking into account the mantra of academic freedom and a faculty member’s being able to study whatever topic they desire. Precisely because academic freedom is a key tenet of higher education, not every faculty member will agree to direct their research activities to societal welfare and sustainability matters. Therefore, universities need buy-in from professors, which for the majority will most likely not be a problem. Nevertheless, an in-depth revision of criteria, incentive systems, and processes is still necessary in many business schools worldwide, as strongly demanded by RRBM in its position paper.

Beyond teaching and research, universities will be held accountable for walking the talk. Teaching sustainability and societal skills will not be enough. Higher education institutions are expected to practice what they preach, i.e., operate sustainable and eco-friendlier physical locales, as well as take strong stances on topics such as gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, refugee crises and migration, and the like. Doing so will help universities in their rankings, increasing the value of their ethical and sustainable behaviour. However, to be consistent, the 21st Century University will also need to act responsibly even when doing so might potentially harm its rankings. Consistency on this matter is at stake. In the end, higher education and its leadership teams must simply lead by example.

Universities’ strongest allies in refocusing on their societal nature will be students, who themselves increasingly and heavily expect societal purpose as well as a mindset of sustainability to be integrated into their programs and courses. They understand that there is no purpose in earning high salaries and owning a penthouse if a climate change-induced hurricane tears it to shreds. The student-led Fridays for Future movement can be seen as an indication of such comprehension. If a university, e.g., incorporates sustainability into an existing curriculum, students most likely will ask for an entire course dedicated thereto. Integrating an elective on sustainability will lead to students demanding that it be required for all students. Ultimately, they will demand an entire degree in sustainability, which can only be a good thing.


About the author

An expert in digital transformation, especially artificial intelligence and social media, Andreas Kaplan looks back on a decade of leadership roles in academia. After having led ESCP Berlin, he now has the Dean’s role at ESCP Business School Paris. Previously, he was the School’s Dean for Academic Affairs, in charge of approximately 6,000 students and overseeing nearly thirty degree programs ranging from undergraduate, to Master’s and MBAs, to PhD programs. Professor Kaplan is a strong advocate for integrating sustainability and ethics into business and management studies. Furthermore, he supports an inter- and multidisciplinary approach to teaching management.

Further reading: Andreas Kaplan (2021) Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: The University of the 21st Century, Great Debates in Higher Education, Emerald Publishing.