Are Academics Afraid of Action?

(This post is cross-posted from StudentReporter.org, which is reporting live from Rio+20 and its affiliated events. Author Sunmin Kim is a doctoral student at the Erb Institute of Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. Please see below for her full bio.)

This post is in reflection of the first day of the UN PRME Global Forum.

“I wonder if academics are afraid of action,” started Claus Pederson, Head of Sustainable Development of Novozyme, to a room filled with 300+ professors, deans and directors of business schools, and other academic participants. The relevancy and impact of business schools is an issue that has recently received much attention and criticism. This comes up in issues of researchcurriculum, and responsibility, just to name a few. Are academics really afraid of action, and is it necessarily a bad thing? What does this imply for sustainable development?

Academia is meant to be critical and reflective. Structurally, we are not well equipped to actively apply our research to current business practices. However, what we are equipped with is the support of the academic community, and flexibility in time and subject matter to rigorously pursue what we believe is important and relevant research.

On the other hand, businesses are not equipped to carry out research that may not promise immediate and tangible outcomes. “They are biased towards action-based mechanisms to resolve problems quickly,” Ángel Cabrera, Master of Ceremonies, explained to me. This short-term emphasis can sometimes be at odds with sustainability goals and research, which often need longer time horizons for investments to be recouped and research questions to be answered.

So which one is needed to face challenges of sustainable development? I believe both are critical. Business professionals (or ‘practitioners’, as academics would call them) are needed to implement practical solutions to sustainability challenges. At the same time, they are limited to the interests and needs of the firm, market, and industry. As I stated in my previous post, sustainability is about thinking beyond our own needs, time and borders. In this regard, academics are better positioned to address the deeper sustainability issues that the public or private sector may not regard to be relevant today

The academics’ passive tendency to not confront problems with action does prove to be a problem in large, collective events such as the UN PRME Global Forum. To illustrate, we were asked to very briefly summarize our table discussion results in almost tweet-like fashion. As expected, some presenters took several minutes to carefully explain everything that their table had discussed (of course, there are many academic settings where this is encouraged). But is this productive in an event where specific questions must be answered and an outcome document written?

In reflection of the first day’s outcomes (or lack of), Giselle Weybrecht, advisor to the PRME Global Forum organizing team and author of the PRiMETime blog, tweeted most likely the common sentiment of practitioners in the audience: “…I hope tomorrow this group can collectively come up with concrete steps to move forward. We know what is needed.”

Editor Mike McCullough (University of Pennsylvania student and IGEL blogger) wrapping up his table’s discussion in the plenary session.

Live twitter feed showing event-related tweets in the background.

About the Author: Sunmin is a doctoral student at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. She is pursuing a joint PhD in Strategy (Ross School of Business) and Environmental Engineering (College of Engineering), and is interested in studying corporate sustainability strategy in the paper industry. She examines how targeted environmental performance creates value for firms, from ‘greening’ of the supply chain and also shifts in the industry-wide value system due to interactive and strategic forces. Outside her doctoral research, she is broadly interested in the role of corporations and higher education in today’s societal sustainability challenges. She is actively involved in several outreach and professional activities to help bridge the gap between not only different disciplines on campus, but also between practitioners, corporate leaders and academics. Sunmin received her B.S. in Biological Engineering at Cornell University, with a minor in Mechanical Engineering. She grew up in Sammamish, WA, about 20 minutes from Seattle, where she developed her love for the ocean, mountains and evergreen trees. She also plays tennis and is an avid runner. 

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