Farming Magazine - May, 2008

FEATURES

Antioch’s Green Education

The triple bottom line: profit, society and sustainability
By Jan Sevene
Tessa Young, with team cohort, presents her findings at Stonewall Farm.

To live up to the idea on which it was founded—building and learning community—to enc-ourage a student-body growth in a fast growing competition for “Green” MBAs and address the educational needs of students facing a world crying out for long-term systemic changes that incorporate profit, society and sustainability, Antioch University New England has launched its “Green” MBA program.

“Business as usual is not sustainable for our planet. The phrase used a lot in this field now is triple bottom line [TBL]—the foundation for all Antioch courses. Businesses need to look at economic, social and environmental issues. So, it’s balancing all of those, and make a profit and minimize the environmental impact,” said the program’s director, Pauline S. Chandler.

The 45-credit MBA, under its official title of Business Organization and Environmental Sustainability, began in the summer of 2007. The program, in general, is geared to a broad-spectrum of students, among them those with agricultural ties. With a growing awareness of food and local agriculture, farmers struggle to make prudent choices when moving to organic meat and produce, or transitioning to producing various crops. Chandler cited energy demands and biodiesel fuel as an example. Farmers wrestle with turning fields over to crops of soybean for fuel. Food or fuel? We need both. The MBA program is designed to cultivate critical thinkers who can make these necessary sustainable choices.

How it works

According to Chandler, most MBAs expect students to take off from their jobs and immerse themselves in their educational program. Other than a weeklong session each summer, she explained, “Antioch’s Organization and Management (O & M) Department is designed for students who are working, so people come for the weekend.”

This six-semester, two-year program begins its concentrated weeklong session with a course on group dynamics to promote understanding of how groups work in organizations. A second course draws on ecological systems to study the principles of sustainability. “Nature’s kind of got it down pat,” Chandler said. A third course speaks to the power of embracing and understanding diversity, helping students develop leadership skills while promoting their ability to make good use of the diversity within a global work force.

Weekend classes start in the fall, beginning Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m., then 6:30 to 9 at night, plus all day Saturday and Sunday. “They do that five weekends a semester. It’s intense,” Chandler said. “You immerse yourself in a class weekend, and then you go back to work. You can kind of test the theories and think about what you’ve learned and perhaps try some new ideas… making the workplace a learning lab.” Between classes, Chandler monitors supplemental online coursework.

Meeting expectations

Jedediah Beach, assistant director of the nonprofit, certified Natick Organic Community Farm in Natick, Mass., says, “I’m learning solid business tools, economics, group dynamics and the opportunity to use these tools. It’s great to go to school then go back to apply these tools to my job… a good mix going on there.”

Student Tessa Young agreed. “Organic businesses, starting at the farm and traveling up the supply chain, have long been leaders in modeling sustainable practices,” said Young, a full-time employee with the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which has to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy. According to Young, although she often heard about new, innovative operational improvements that benefited the environment, the people and the traditional fiscal bottom line, she was dismayed to learn that in many cases it was still “business as usual.” According to a survey, less than half of Fortune 500 companies in North America—although professing to embrace sustainability—failed to deliver on their promises. To understand why and help create and implement solutions for those organizations falling short on practicing sustainability, Young turned to Antioch.

“After only two semesters at Antioch,” she said, “I’m confident that this particular program is ripe with the skills, knowledge and inspiration to facilitate my pursuit of meaningful, systemic change.”

Beach and Young are two of 19 students enrolled in the program—a mix of nine women and 10 men—ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s. Two are listed as organic farmers, with a few working with agricultural-type corporations. “Two do educational work at their farms… working school groups, with lots of educational activities,” said Antioch Admissions Director Jennifer Fritz. “It seems to be a very good fit for them initially because of the course work. Traditional programs don’t address environmental sustainability. Having it integrated into the program speaks directly to the farmer’s profession.”

One of a kind

What makes the program unique? A lengthy list includes the weekend program; an interdisciplinary approach (organization and management working alone and team-teaching, incorporating environmental classes); using a cohort model where students travel and learn together; the opportunity to reflect on what students learn and how to apply it; and a balance of hard-core courses and experiential learning, facilitated by a fall practicum whereby students apply what they’ve learned. This last piece, in particular, is a beneficial fit with Antioch’s ongoing connection to Stonewall Farm, a working educational farm in Keene, N.H.

In transition due to significant funding cuts, the farm currently restructured staffing and operations to reduce expenses, said Stonewall Farm’s Executive Director Kathy Harrington. To help remain on budget, Harrington concluded, “Our focus needs to be on profit centers, revenue opportunities to sustain us long term. Given the MBA’s focus is to develop revenue building projects with the earth systems in mind, it has tremendous potential benefit to Stonewall Farm.”

As part of their practicum, Antioch’s students were challenged to develop ways to increase the farm’s revenue. After meeting with dairy herdsmen, gardeners and farm staff, then brainstorming ideas, they broke into five teams, each taking on a separate project: agro-tourism potentials, commercial kitchen as an educational site, developing a local food restaurant on site, teaching and practicing sustainability and energy onsite, and a “blended model” of developing onsite resources, renewable energy, broadening membership and practicing sustainable agriculture.

After researching the commercial kitchen idea, researching restrictions on the land through the Society for Protection of N.H. Forests and investigating alternative uses for farm housing and alternative growing practices, the semester culminated in December with teams presenting their ideas to Stonewall Farm’s board and staff.

A shift in thinking

Interest in the program is showing a shift in thinking. “A professor teaching social science research is totally in-volved. Others embedded in their industry love what they do, but they want sustainability to become part of their organization. With a rising awareness of the importance of local food, future business leaders are thinking and now fostering a closer relationship with the farmers that produce that food,” Chandler said, who is confident their MBA will provide the information to help make that shift.

She sees the program encouraging future farmers from shying away from a “quick fix.” Through collaboration, she envisions students leaving with multiple ways to solve problems.

“Our hope,” Chandler concluded, “is our students will leave here not just thinking about their organization, but where their organization fits in this web of life. It used to be people had a tiny focus in their own little, tiny world, but the first law of ecology is everything is connected to everything else.”

Fritz added, “It is a high achieving group. They all say they’ve been waiting for a program like this, that they really wanted to find something they felt they could be committed to. When they found us, they knew it was a right fit.”

The author is a freelance contributor.

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For more information

Antioch New England University
40 Avon St.
Keene, N.H. 03431
800-553-8920
www.antiochne.edu