Instructor honored for redefining sustainability in business education

Instructor honored for redefining sustainability in business education

January 9, 2020

Prior to his academic career, John Byrd spent most of his time outdoors, backpacking and climbing in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and working as a mountaineering and rafting guide in Colorado and Utah. 

“Most people who spend a lot of time in the wilderness become concerned about protection and preservation,” said Byrd, PhD, Senior Instructor in CU Denver’s Business School. “I began to realize that I was having an impact, and companies were having an even bigger impact.”

Twelve years ago, Byrd taught the first course in what would become the Business School’s Managing for Sustainability (M4S) program. Today the program is recognized nationally for its distinguished professors and courses that address pressing issues facing the world. One course in particular, Byrd’s online graduate course titled Business and Global Climate Change (MGMT 6827), received important recognition in early December. The Aspen Institute, an international think tank for “values-based leadership,” recognized Byrd as one of 10 winners of the 2019 “Ideas Worth Teaching Award” for his efforts in redefining business education and preparing leaders of tomorrow through exceptional learning experiences.

Byrd with his hiking and cross-country skiing gear.

In Byrd’s course, students learn about carbon budgets, policies to address climate change, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs; look at how companies report their carbon footprints; and examine, then practice, developing carbon emission reduction strategies for organizations. “Part of it is understanding that there are risks and opportunities that are going to arise in the future because of these social and environmental impacts,” Byrd said. “If a student takes this course, they are more aware of those risks and opportunities, and they have some of the tools to deal with them so they are a much more complete manager.”

In a media release, Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program pointed out that recipients of the Ideas Worth Teaching Award must challenge conventional thinking and test new approaches to dividing issues, such as distrust in institutions, fractured public debates, and climate and economic inequality. For the current awards, she stated: “Our ten 2019 Ideas Worth Teaching Award-winning courses offer a strong signal about the future of management education.”

A letter from the Aspen Institute & Business Society Program to the Business School’s Interim Dean Gary Colbert pointed out that Byrd’s course is honored for equipping tomorrow’s business leaders with the skills and decision-making capabilities needed for a complex world and business environment. Colbert echoed the sentiment, describing Byrd as a “well-known scholar and a passionate entrepreneurial instructor.”

“John’s research and instructional innovation has a meaningful impact for our students, industry, and society,” said Colbert, adding, “John is an ideal faculty member.”

Preparing business leaders of tomorrow 

In specialized courses taught by experts in sustainability, the M4S specialization for the MBA, MS Management, and MS Marketing programs prepares students for success in a world increasingly focused on the environment. Focus areas cover social marketing, climate change, community sustainability, and more. 

“Whether they are working for major companies in sustainability or in other business areas, M4S graduates, and other students taking M4S electives, are serving as change agents for sustainability,” said Beth Cooperman, Co-director of the M4S program and Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship.

“With climate change, an existential threat today, businesses are taking on new roles in reducing their carbon emissions, and at the same time reaping benefits from greater energy efficiency and profitability for their firms,” Cooperman pointed out.

Scenic image of mountains and yellow trees
Colorado is a prime place for outdoor enthusiasts to work and live.

Together, Byrd and Professor Kenneth Bettenhausen, also a Co-director of the M4S program, developed the Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Become a Sustainable Business Change Agent,” consisting of four courses that help learners develop effective sustainability proposals to ignite change where they live and work. Today the course has a reach of more than 4,000 students. 

“Sustainability is a priority at organizations, be they Fortune 500 or sole proprietorships,” explained Bettenhausen. “John’s course and others in the CU Denver Business School’s Managing for Sustainability specialization help students understand the science behind climate change, how nations around the world turn that into laws and regulations, what that means for organizations, and what companies are doing as a result.” 

Best online MBA in sustainability 

In 2019, the M4S program was named #3 Best Online MBA in Sustainability Program by BestColleges and #5 Best Online MBA in Sustainability Program by The Best Schools

“The commitment and the expertise are the most important things about our program,” Byrd noted. Byrd credits the program’s success to the Business School administrators–Ken Bettenhausen, Beth Cooperman,Gary Colbert, former Dean Sueann Ambron, and Cliff Young–and to Business School faculty including David Chandler, Francisco Conejo, Cyrus Dioun, Blair Gifford, Mike Harper, Jiban Khuntia, Ira Selkowitz, and Roger Stace, who contribute to the M4S program with excellent teaching and research on climate change and sustainability issues.

“The Managing for Sustainability program wouldn’t exist without administrators who felt it was the right thing to do,” Byrd said. “We have a lot of folks contributing to the effort, and I think my course has benefited from our overall strong program and our very active advisory board.” He hopes the M4S program has a ripple effect on colleges and universities around the world. He said he dreams of a time when sustainability in business isn’t a question.

“I hope that sustainability in time becomes fully integrated into all the decisions that organizations make,” Byrd said. “Rather than talking about ‘sustainable business,’ it is just part of doing business well.”