Continuously evolving education for sustainability professionals

Continuously evolving education for sustainability professionals

During my time as an EPA employee and then as a consultant from 1977 through the 1990s, I began to develop an understanding of the educational needs of environmental workers. I began to apply this understanding, creating graduate programs in environmental and sustainability policy and management. I started in 1987, when I became associate dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and was able to launch a program focused on environmental policy. This focus continues today as a concentration in energy and environment. A unique aspect of this program in the early days was the course taught collectively by several prominent ecologists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Columbia. The course, entitled “Environmental Science for Policymakers,” was an innovative and important achievement. During my time at EPA, I learned about the importance of environmental science and the general ignorance that most policymakers and environmental policy analysts (myself included) had of the basics of toxicology, hydrology, geology, climate science, environmental science, and Earth systems science. . The environmental sciences taught by our faculty to students of environmental policy and management were not the same as those taught to future ecologists; Instead, science was most relevant to political and administrative decision-making.

In 2002, building on what we learned in our Environmental Policy concentration, we created a Master of Public Administration program specifically for environmental policy analysts and managers: the MBA in Environmental Science and Policy. It features an environmental science summer, along with a typical set of MPA courses in quantitative policy analysis, economics, management, and financial management taught during the fall and spring semesters. Core MPA courses taught traditional concepts but focused on cases and data sets on environmental issues. The Environmental MPA also included a three-semester series of workshops that began with a two-semester management simulation focused on science communication in the summer and program initiation and administration in the fall. In the spring, we became involved in philanthropic projects for environmental government and non-profit agencies. The entire sequence was based on experiential learning or learning by doing. Today, more than two decades later, our program has evolved significantly, but we continue to offer the same core degree in environmental science and policy. We have implemented hundreds of workshop projects since the beginning of the SIPA Environmental Policy Programme. In recent years, we have made the curriculum more flexible by allowing students to enroll in four elective courses in the fall and spring semesters. Columbia now offers hundreds of courses in environmental policy and sustainability management each year, and our SIPA students can shape part of their program to focus on issues such as energy, climate, water, agriculture and many other topics, including sustainable fashion.

The program we created at SIPA requires an in-depth, full-time commitment of twelve months to complete a 54-credit master’s degree in three intensive semesters. This group program is very successful but requires single-minded commitment and focus. Around 2008 and 2009, as America suffered from the Great Recession, I began working with colleagues at the Earth Institute in Colombia to develop a program designed for working professionals interested in transitioning into the emerging field of sustainability management. In discussions with SIPA deans, I was told that the best place to obtain such a degree was at Columbia’s then-new College of Continuing Education, now called the College of Professional Studies. This school is designed to meet the educational needs of working professionals. The MSc in Sustainability Management will offer all of its classes in the evening and will include only two required classes – a broad survey of sustainability management at the beginning and a free client-based workshop at the end. In between, students will complete course requirements in five areas of study: 1. Interdisciplinary Topics in Sustainability Management. 2. Economics and quantitative analysis. 3. The physical dimensions of sustainability. 4. Public policy, and 5. Administration and Finance. Over the past three years, this program has doubled in size and now has 450 students. While initially, most students were working professionals who attended part-time, today, about 40% attend full-time. Many full-time students are international students and must attend full-time to obtain a student visa. This semester we offer about 50 courses on topics ranging from life cycle analysis to carbon disclosure compliance to reversing the biodiversity crisis to areas of environmental justice. During the first fall semester of 2010, we offered only 11 courses. Every Tuesday night at 6:10 p.m., I teach Sustainability Management Fundamentals to approximately 115 students and remain motivated to learn from my students while teaching the required course.

I now think of the field I work in as environmental sustainability: a subfield of the broader field of sustainability management. The field of sustainability management has evolved into a field of management that continues to study how to preserve the planet while producing wealth, but now also examines how to sustain organizations and communities and ensure that merit and brainpower are rewarded while harming host communities is done. reduced. Companies around the world are including sustainability considerations as part of routine management, and as I predicted in my 2011 book Sustainability managementToday’s definition of effective management includes sustainable management. The two terms are synonymous. Effective managers focus on energy efficiency and its carbon and environmental impacts, or they end up paying hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and liability to communities like East Palestine, Ohio. They focus on their political influence over local communities, or, like Amazon, are forced to abandon their plans for a second headquarters in Long Island City and find themselves exiled to Crystal City, Virginia.

We live on an increasingly crowded and interconnected planet in a global economy that is not going away. Management requires care and precision. It requires brains and strategy, not brawn and brute force. As educators, my colleagues and I are asked to anticipate how society, culture, technology, and governance will evolve. This year, we added three training courses on corporate sustainability reporting, including a legal course on upcoming new carbon disclosure rules and a course on managing corporate sustainability reports. It has been added to our long-standing course on how to conceptualize and write environmental, social and governance (ESG) reports. Our courses on greenhouse gas measurement and life cycle analysis continue to develop, along with courses on start-ups, sustainable finance and the circular economy.

The two master’s programs I run now have more than three thousand graduates, and many of these graduates are leaders in the field of environmental sustainability and sustainability management. Some provide me with welcome and needed advice on emerging issues that our curriculum needs to address. Our students are also free to offer their advice, and our faculty take all such suggestions very seriously. Environmental sustainability issues change daily. Looking back over the past decades, the only constant is change. I remember in 2001 when New York City’s last landfill in Freshshells, Staten Island, was closed, and we got together with engineering colleagues to learn about waste-to-energy plants and anaerobic digestion of food waste. Today, food recycling is mandatory in Brooklyn and Queens, and waste mining using robotics and artificial intelligence shows great promise as we work to replace household waste sorting with automated sorting. Electric vehicles that seemed like a fantasy are being adopted at a pace no one expected a decade ago. Battery technology and renewable energy technology continue to advance.

In an area like environmental policy and sustainability management, we need to keep up with developments and look forward to try to predict where we might be headed. Of course, as we keep pace with a changing world, we still need to teach our students some of the basics of management, finance, and public policy, which remain unchanged. Half of my studies in sustainability management were devoted to the fundamentals of organizational management, which my colleague Bill Emick and I wrote about in our recent book Management basics. The other half is devoted to cases and concepts in sustainability management. Students find management studies simplistic, but when we discuss organizational behavior, we learn that inadequate management is very common. As I often say: “If management is so simple, why do so many managers abuse it so badly?” In addition to management fundamentals, there are analytical techniques from economics, political science, law, sociology and history that are fundamental to effective sustainability management.

It is this combination of timeless concepts and understanding the contemporary world that presents a constant challenge to sustainability educators. There is a need to balance lessons that will help our graduates in their next job with concepts that will remain central throughout their careers. Lifelong learning is required to respond to a changing world, but so is the reinforcement of basic ethical principles and values ​​and a basic understanding of human and organizational behaviour. Education requires change and stability, and the quest for balance never ends.


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