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Focusing on Environmental Sustainability in Higher Education

Students and workers both want to feel like they are part of something bigger themselves. Higher ed institutions and companies must respond to this need but collaborating to fill gaps in ESG.

The lifelong learning model is becoming increasingly popular in higher education, which means people are looking for education that helps them find meaning and purpose in their lives. Higher education needs to reflect this desire for a more sustainable future in their programming. In this interview, Lerzan Aksoy discusses the importance of environmental sustainability, how to communicate about it to students and the impact it has on the institution and community.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How would you describe the current landscape or relationship between higher ed and the workforce?

Lerzan Aksoy (LA): When we look at research, college degrees are associated with much higher levels of income levels over a person’s lifetime. With a bachelor’s degree, your earnings are about 34% higher than with an associate degree and 84% higher than a high school diploma. So, people recognize the importance of higher education. But the pace of change for most businesses has accelerated at high speed. It’s important to note what that speed means for higher ed.

There’s a great deal of pressure now on higher ed to provide the skills to make an immediate impact on a student in the workforce. We must prepare future-ready business leaders. Innovating programs and curriculum must happen quicker. Many companies are struggling to find talent, and much of the blame was laid on an education system that hasn’t been evolving. So, higher ed needs to better prepare students for this change. It requires partnerships between business and education to make sure we’re filling the gaps.

Evo: Why is it important for higher ed leaders specifically to focus on environmental sustainability, equitable outcomes and social innovation?

LA: It’s clear that there are dire and complex challenges in the world. We must be able to solve them, which requires business involvement. We have to develop sustainable systems to ensure the world is set up for future generations, with opportunities for everyone to share benefits.

There are many jobs in sustainability and ESG, but we’re hearing that there’s not enough talent with the knowledge and skills to fill these positions. It’s important to provide ESG literacy, not only to students but to staff as well. At Fordham University Gabelli School of Business, we’re working on multiple projects to help shine a light on this, showing how faculty and students can contribute to their industry and solve some issues. It also opens students’ eyes to the career tracks out there.

Evo: What are some challenges that come with trying to apply more an ESG perspective to business operations?

LA: When people hear ESG, there can be some criticism and pushback, especially when it comes to profitability. It’s seen more as a cost center than revenue center, which isn’t the case. Related to that are the criticisms of greenwashing: using ESG and exaggerating claims to make the performance sound better than it is.

Standardizing metrics is another challenge. Many different organizations are coming in and providing a different way of measuring ESG—there’s no one standard metric. As a result, auditing and assurance can become an issue. There needs to be organizational alignment across functions to be on the same page.

General awareness is another important challenge to focus on. Many consumers are unaware of companies’ ESG efforts or what the term even means. Studies find that a customer’s perception of a company’s social innovation isn’t linked to ESG and sustainability. For ESG-related efforts to have a sustainable financial impact, customers don’t just need to care but care enough for it to affect their buying behaviors.

Evo: What are some best practices for institutions and industry to close the gap?

LA: Consumer interest in ESG isn’t in quantitative data provided to investors. They want ESG data to be verifiable and for companies to tell their stories. Also, if employees are actively involved in a company’s environment, social and governance initiatives, then it’s a good reason to care about them. It’s something they’ll share with friends and family.

A company’s values are of greater importance to younger generations. They’re important for talent acquisition and retention. Employees feel pride and joy when they’re engaged in leading services to societal initiatives. It can have a positive, lasting difference.

Evo: What impact will a workforce and corporate mindset have on student and institutional success?

LA: Employers want to recruit people who will make a positive difference in their organizations. That mission and identity permeate everything we do at the Gabelli School. It’s a mindset of serving others and society. From the student’s perspective, they want to be educated by institutions that provide opportunities to excel in their careers and lives. They want a meaningful and impactful life. This can only happen through education that considers both the workforce and corporate mindsets.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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