Aquinas leads the nation in sustainable business education

February 2, 2009
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In the fall of 2002, two years after he joined Aquinas College as provost and dean of faculty, Edward Balog presented the idea of a joint program between the business and science departments. He first met with the business department and got a lukewarm response. Then he met with the science department: same thing. And that was almost that.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard him say,” said Dr. Mathew Tueth, who also came to Aquinas in 2000, as a geography and environmental studies professor. “The idea of interdisciplinary education — I’ve been a big proponent of that. Plus, when he talked about combining science and business, that was right along the lines of my graduate research.”

Tueth enthusiastically continued his conversation with Balog, who became the sixth president of the college in 2007.

“I really think you’re on to something here, and I’m not sure you realize it,” Tueth said.

“Well, nobody else really felt that way,” replied Balog.

“I know, but let me work on this. There’s people already doing this sort of thing out in the private sector and I think you really hit on something.”

Balog was interested in a program that would differentiate Aquinas from other colleges competing in the same market. In August 2003, when the sustainable business program officially launched, that’s exactly what he got.

The program was put together by a group of 10 to 12 business people and educators led by Tueth. In the program’s first year, Tueth recalls recruiting students majoring in business or science to switch to the program. Since then, the sustainable business program has become the seventh largest major at Aquinas. It was the first of its kind in the nation, and is still one out of only two programs in the country.

“I think this is a path-breaking program,” said Dr. Deborah Steketee, assistant professor for the program and executive director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas. She was the second faculty member hired for the program, in 2005.

“It was a very direct response to the needs of the business community, and I think that from a strategic point of view, this helps us be a part of that looking forward and seeing where the opportunities are going to be for our students once they leave us, and how we can best prepare them for that changing world,” Steketee said.

“Sustainable business is being recognized as a real competitive advantage. Most people unfamiliar with it think it’s another environmental program that adds cost to business,” said Tueth. “It’s not that at all. There are three essential components for anything to be called sustainable business: One of them is profitability. It doesn’t add cost; it lowers cost. This movement is spreading even faster than I thought it would, and one of the reasons is that it makes companies money, and it can make any company money.”

The program now pulls students from across the country. Word has spread through Aquinas’ participation in various conferences, said Tueth, and the program also was featured in Fast Company Magazine, a publication focused on creative approaches to business.

One reason for the growing popularity of the program could be attributed to the interest companies have shown in the program’s students.

“Nearly all of (graduated students) are gainfully employed in some very interesting jobs,” said Tueth. “One of the requirements for graduation is an internship. Every one of my students has found internships and, in fact, last spring was the first semester we’ve actually had more internships than students. Our students in these internships have built up a pretty solid record of providing value for the businesses.”

Tueth said internships are often looked at as a goodwill gesture by businesses to help students get their foot in the door, but he believes his students offer more.

“They really have a better understanding of this sustainable business movement and the methods than do businesses that are actively engaged in this. It’s been a real good program for both the businesses that intern our students and our students.”

As Tueth mentioned, the program has a growing relationship with businesses and also with the community at large. The Center for Sustainability at Aquinas led by Dr. Steketee helps foster this relationship.

“We have four roles for the center. One of those roles is to really build the networks and partnerships between regional businesses, students, and also the faculty of our undergraduate program,” said Steketee. “What we’re finding is, all of this area in sustainable businesses is new terrain, so we’re finding the importance of networks to be able to learn together in that endeavor.”

Steketee said the center also has a goal of providing workshops and lectures to educate people on sustainable business. Employing “new thinking” on campus is another goal: initiating sustainable practices, such as using certain types of paper and decorating the campus with students’ art. The center also hopes to connect the community with sustainable resources. One of the ways it does so is through its Web site:

Tueth said the sustainable business program is working on adding a master’s degree program that will hopefully be available in the not-too-distant future.

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