Focus, Higher Education, and Sustainability

Aquinas among nation’s leaders in sustainability movement

The triple bottom line pumps vitality into the region’s economy.

October 25, 2013
| By Pat Evans |
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Aquinas among nations leaders in sustainable business
Brian DiVita says Aquinas College’s programs have evolved as the business world’s needs for sustainability have changed. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Grand Rapids has gone to great lengths to become a sustainable city, and its colleges and universities reflect that movement.

One school in particular has established itself as one of the nation’s leaders in sustainable education: Aquinas College began its Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Business in 2003. In 2010, the college began its sustainable business master’s degree program. Both are among the first of their kind in the nation.

“A group of folks saw the potential emerging, and by large measure, it was industries saying we see this as a business landscape and we are interested in supporting education that will meet our needs,” said Deborah Steketee, associate professor of sustainable business. “A group of professors worked very hard to come up with the kind of education that sustainability demands.”

The programs focus on the “triple bottom line,” which directs efforts toward building and sustaining a viable economic, environmental and social community. The programs prepare students to help businesses achieve long-term profitability while maintaining the health of the environment and community, said Brian DiVita, director of graduate management programs at Aquinas.

The college’s programs have evolved as the business world’s needs for sustainability changes.

“It has moved along as the market has moved along,” DiVita said. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t find a job posting for a sustainability director.”

The master’s degree program helps establish a new way of thinking designed to create and generate new business models and products to fuel a sustainable economy, Steketee said.

“Business can be a force to change the world,” she said. “That is really a recent way of looking at business. As a general view, we are seeing new potential for them to change the world.”

The master’s degree is a 12-course, two-year program but can be completed throughout a seven-year period, and the current cost is $18,828. There also is an exclusive scholarship for graduate management studies called the Pearson Business Scholarship. Courses range from Sustainable Business Management to Building Social Capital and Organizational Theory and Design.

Aquinas doesn’t stop at academic programs, however. There’s also a student-run Center for Sustainability that promotes the school’s sustainable ethos and offers a Sustainable Business Professional Certificate.

“It’s to walk the talk,” Steketee said. “There are three different functions: campus sustainability and integrating our coursework; second is a bridge between our sustainability expertise and the community — trying to be relevant and work on projects that can better the entire community; third is our website, which is designed to be a more regionally focused resource.”

The Sustainable Business Professional Certificate offers professionals the ability to expand their knowledge of sustainable business practices without dedicating the time to a master’s program. The certificate requires six three-hour classes for $2,500. It’s registered with Michigan Works! and the No Worker Left Behind Program.

DiVita and Steketee said that some schools have modeled programs after the Aquinas Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Business, but the graduate degree is one of the few in the nation to fully immerse students in sustainable business. Most attach “sustainable” portions to existing degrees.

“We made a strategic move at the institutional level to go all in on this,” DiVita said. “We need to be in this and we need to do it properly.”

Although Aquinas has established itself as a leader in sustainable business programs, most West Michigan schools have begun to integrate sustainability into existing programs. A lot of that has to do with the city’s commitment and the business community’s involvement.

“We have a lot of good leaders in place; frankly, a lot of them are visionaries who understand sustainability,” DiVita said. “Sustainable business is savvy business, it’s just being smart.”

Davenport University has a 15-credit post-baccalaureate certificate in Sustainable Business Development to develop students’ social values while decreasing environmental impact.

Ferris State started a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Sustainability in 2012 and teaches future architects to integrate buildings into their surroundings.

Kendall College of Art and Design opened its Wege Center for Sustainable Design last year, which drives students and faculty alike to work sustainability into the thinking process for all programs. The center is located on the fourth floor of the historic Federal Building on Pearl Street.

“Design is an economic driver for West Michigan. When you think about the future of the design world, you think about sustainable design,” Ferris State President David Eisler said when the center opened in 2012. “That’s where the field is moving. The intent behind the Wege Center for Sustainable Design is to integrate sustainability as a core organizing concept for Kendall’s work in the design field.”

Grand Valley State University established its Sustainable Community Development Initiative in 2006 and strives to provide all those within the university with the tools to be sustainable. The school offers courses, programs, internships and activities that help promote a sustainable life. GVSU also offers a Green Chemistry Certificate.

Grand Rapids Community College offers a similar objective: to bring together the school’s students and faculty to employ sustainability factors of the triple bottom line into everyday life.

Calvin College offers various environmental science degrees but also strives to implement a community focus to equip citizens to be leaders.

Each school brings something different to the table, which is what helps make Grand Rapids a leader in sustainable education, from Calvin’s community development to Grand Valley’s engineering and chemistry, Steketee said.

“No one of us can do it all, but all of us can do it together,” she said. “We work collegially to do it all.”

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