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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Students say Business and Sustainability program is not preparing them for the field

Dunn teaches ENVS 359, Greening Business Policies and Practices on Nov. 6. // Photo by Jaden Moon

By Ian Haupt

Students and faculty of Western’s business and sustainability major are concerned about the program’s effectiveness. Graduates say they left Western without the necessary skills to succeed in the field or even be considered as a hirable candidate. The program is no longer recommended to other students.

“Paying $20,000 out of your own pocket and not getting the education you deserve is pretty disheartening,” graduate Holly Knutson said.

Those already invested in the major have complained of repetitive classes and little skill-based training and even filed a petition against faculty adviser Craig Dunn in fall 2017.

Many of these complaints were focused on the overwhelming power of Dunn, the person behind the major and, some believe, its flaws.

The business and sustainability major is a bachelor’s degree managed by both the College of Business and Economics and the Huxley College of the Environment.

Most sustainability degrees at schools around the country are offered as Master of Business Administration programs.

According to Dunn, there are currently 50 students enrolled in the program, 27 pre-majors and 32 interested students. A total of 79 students have graduated from the program since its formation in 2014.

As a new program, business and sustainability is still in development. An energy studies concentration major was developed within the program a year ago. The major is made up of 12 core classes offered by either CBE or Huxley, seven elective credits under advisement and two major-restricted classes, which Dunn regularly teaches.

The major-restricted courses are Greening Business Policy and Practice, ENVS/MGMT 359, and Greening Business Applications, ENVS/MGMT 466.

Frustrated with one of her courses, Knutson drafted a petition in spring 2017 to give to Scott Young, CBE Dean, that received 16 student signatures. The petition outlined students’ disappointment with Dunn’s class, ENVS/MGMT 359.

In the petition, students explicitly stated: “We are not getting the education we deserve,” and demanded that Dunn be confronted. Issues included a lack of a course syllabus and completed assignments being graded.

The petition resulted in an apology, which Dunn issued through a Canvas message on Nov. 16, 2017. By the end of fall quarter, the final grade in the class was based on four of 12 assignments for the class.

Despite Knutson’s efforts, comments from current students reveal that little to no changes have been made to the course.

Current ENVS/MGMT 359 student Michael Mayo said the class does not necessarily relate to a business and sustainability degree as the course material is centered around conceptualizing the big picture and career preparation.

“We had an assignment recently that was to write your resume and create a LinkedIn profile,” Mayo said. “Do I think that should be something in an upper division course? No.”

Craig Dunn stands in his office wearing a light blue shirt and a dark blue jacket with a blue and purple plaid tie.
Craig Dunn in his office on Nov. 6. Students are concerned with Dunn’s control over the program. // Photo by Jaden Moon

Students have similarly expressed concern with Dunn’s other class, ENVS/MGMT 466, Greening Business Applications.

In winter 2018, Knutson spoke with Scott Young to ask for an alternative to taking Dunn’s ENVS/MGMT 466 in the spring.

Knutson said Wendy Wilhelm, a retired marketing professor, offered to teach an alternative class for students wishing to avoid another class with Dunn.

Subsequently, Dunn filed a Faculty Leave Request Form due to a family-related health crisis; a crisis he said contributed to the issues of fall quarter.

Young ended up filling the empty teaching role for ENVS/MGMT 466.

At the end of spring quarter, an “exit survey” for those graduating from the program to reflect on their experiences was issued by Dunn through the business and sustainability Canvas page.

In the exit survey, a student wrote, “[The Business and Sustainability major] is at a crossroads right now. I think it is on the verge of repelling potential students, but has the possibility to be extremely useful if the program wanted to devote adequate resources to it. As of my final quarter, I do not feel like I have been prepared to perform adequately in the professional world as a [business and sustainability] graduate.”

The survey consisted of questions relating to how the major benefited students and what changes could be made so that students take away more from it.

The main concern students expressed was a lack of structure and skill-building, specifically in ENVS/MGMT 359 and 466. Students mentioned a need for classes specifically designed for the major that merge business tendencies with environmental thinking in order to teach sustainability.

The student enrolled in ENVS/MGMT 466 last spring who chose to remain anonymous said that since Wilhelm has retired, Dunn has full control of the program.

“Wendy was the only one that stood up to Craig,” the student said. “And now that she’s gone, he now has free reigns to do whatever he so pleases again.”

According to the Washington State Employee Salaries government website, Dunn was the 14th highest paid Western employee in 2017 with a salary of $156,500.

Wilhelm, who has a doctorate in marketing and psychology from the University of Washington and specializes in sustainability and green marketing, said the major hasn’t done an adequate job combining the two areas of study.

“The whole idea was to teach business students how to run a sustainable business – closing the loop, no waste, all that kind of stuff,” Wilhelm said. “So, that was the idea. The problem is there aren’t any courses that integrate the two.”

Last year, Wilhelm had graduate Katie Secrist speak in her marketing and sustainability class. Secrist works for Kevin Wilhelm, former business and sustainability adjunct professor at Western, as a consultant in Seattle for Sustainable Business Consulting, LLC.

In an email to Young, Dunn, Wilhelm and Dean of Huxley College Steve Hollenhorst, Secrist said, “The B&S degree as it stands does not prepare students to be a sustainability professional after graduation.”

In the email, Secrist, laid out courses she considers necessary for anyone to be a hireable candidate into the field – courses that Western does not offer.

The list included courses such as: Sustainability Reporting and Certifications, Stakeholder Engagement Practices, Sustainability Policies for Decision Making, Change Management for Sustainability and a Culminating Capstone course.

“I think the program as a whole would benefit from introducing classes throughout the business curriculum that integrated sustainability all the way through, for example Wendy’s Sustainability and Marketing class,” Secrist said.

Dunn said the primary concern he hears about the curriculum is redundancy. As a result, he has focused his classes on mentality.

“I know enough about what employers have told me about what they are looking for and generally they will say they are more concerned to get people with critical thinking ability, because they can train for skills but it is much harder for them to train for critical thinking ability,” Dunn said.

Graduate Ryan Roberts, 27, works for Kulshan Services LLC., a family-owned sustainability and environmental consulting firm. He said he left Western missing crucial pieces of how sustainability professionals do their job.

He said sustainability reporting is the most important technical skill as a sustainability professional. Roberts said he was lucky enough to have the space to train himself with these skills that the program did not provide him with.

Knutson said she had never heard of sustainability reporting until Secrist spoke in Wilhelm’s marketing and sustainability class.

“If somebody were to ask me in an interview, ‘What do you know about sustainable reporting?’” Knutson said. “I would be like, ‘I don’t.’ That would be my response. I don’t know anything about sustainable reporting. I should.”

1 COMMENT

  1. As a Business and Sustainability graduate, it certainly feels like this program is failing its students. In my senior year, I went to an environmental professional conference, GreenBiz, and knew almost nothing about even the most basic topics. Given my lack of knowledge and applicable job skills, I was not able to network nearly as effectively as I’d hoped and have struggled to find decent employment after graduation. Many of my classmates are experiencing the same thing. I regret choosing this major. Business and Sustainability sounds great and has potential but as it stands, does not prepare graduates for employment in the field.

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