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News | Marlboro pioneers sustainability degrees

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted April 5, 2007

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Ralph Meima's title, and to clarify that this program is offered only by Marlboro, and not in collaboration with an other school.

BRATTLEBORO — Sooner or later many — if not all — medium to large-scale businesses in have to face the critical issues of our time: global warming, demand for energy, corporate accountability, globalization, and sustainability.

Some believe that all masters in business administration (MBA) programs will need to infuse multiple bottom-line approaches to effectively respond to the Earth’s growing demands, as well as the demands consumers and the marketplace place upon businesses.

The Marlboro Grad Center in Brattleboro is in the preliminary stages of developing a unique MBA program to deal with these particular issues.

It's not the only college in the region to offer such a program. Antioch College of New England and Green Mountain College offer similar program.s All hope these degrees will be in high demand.

Many in Vermont are banking upon the growth of clean technology, environmental, and energy companies as a way to stabilize, and perhaps grow, the state’s economy in the coming decades.

The Vermont Guardian sat down with Ralph Meima, director of “Managing for Social Responsibility” MBA program who gave us his perspective on sustainability, management, and Vermont’s role in it.

VG: Tell us about the significance of the new MBA program. How did it get started and why was it established?

RM: I was invited to take part in a focus group with some people who had some insight into management, education, and sustainability and what we understood was there were a couple different needs that came together. First of all, the Marlboro College Graduate Center has excess capacity of space for more graduate programs to bring in more students, create more activity, improve the bottom line, and further the overall mission. Through some of the contacts of Bart Goodwin, chairman of the Board of Trustees, influences came in that suggested maybe some kind of green MBA or sustainability would be the way to go.

VG: A fundamental component of the MBA is the “Vermont Approach.” Why is this significant and how does it apply to Vermont?

RM: Vermont has a lot of very interesting and successful small and medium-sized businesses which have taken key aspects of sustainability to heart either in how they operate (such as how they treat their employees or how they interact with the community) or the goods and services they sell. Out of that has grown the whole Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), which now has about 650-700 members, somewhere between 12-15 percent of the entire state workforce. These companies and the VBSR as a whole represent the model of doing business, which is relatively unique in the United States. What’s most unique is that the individual companies are worth paying attention to — whether it be Seventh Generation or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters — they’re not just sort of individually interesting instances. Here we’re talking about a business cluster that works together and that’s an interesting community for us to put students in touch with.

But the other direction has to do that Vermont needs inputs of technology and investment and ideas that are going to help [the state] deal with a lot of social, environmental, and energy trends. Then there’s the overall issue of global competition. Even though Vermont’s economy is relatively strong in a national sense, Vermont businesses always need more ideas in new investment and links to the world. Vermont relies heavily on international trade. An entire fifth of Vermont’s gross domestic product is reliant among product exports. As an MBA with an international component and a global perspective people coming in from elsewhere we will become one more conduit and [hopefully will be] a particular interest in the southeastern part of the state for ideas and people and technology and things to enhance our global competitiveness.

VG: How will the goals of this program be implemented?

RM: The courses will look at what sustainability means in its social, environmental aspects, and what the history of thought is around sustainability and what kinds of models have been proposed. There is a sequence of courses based on systems thinking, looking at water, energy, food, and other courses will provide depth in other areas as well [such as local and regional sustainability issues]. This runs for nearly 20 months for the first year and our students will have direct access to people starting carbon funds, livable wages, downtown revitalization, etc. through direct contact in our intensive program. I think we can genuinely offer that in the same way that getting an MBA at Stanford could get you tapped into a place like Silicon Valley.

VG: Where is the MBA program now and what lies ahead?

RM: We’re still in the infant stages and right now we’re talking about what our expectations are and what’s reasonable to expect. The curriculum is being refined and the Bainbridge Institute has helped us out a great deal. We’ve gone out there to see how things are done and they’ve also visited us here in Brattleboro. What lies ahead is we need to reach our goal of 15 to 20 students in the first year and by the time June comes we can consolidate all the administrative routines worked out [and maybe be ready for fall]. A lot of it is already here but we still have more to work on.

This is not going to be a program that is designed to be large corporately-oriented or entrepreneurally-oriented but taken as a whole, I think in the curriculum will have a balanced attention to the world of established corporations, the entrepreneurial world, or enterprises. But our overall flavor is going to be strongly influenced by small and medium-sized companies because that kind of company so dominates the business landscape around here.

For more information on “Managing for Sustainability” or other Marlboro Grad Center programs contact Ralph Meima or Kevin Bell at 258-9200, or