Should Human Rights Be Part Of An MBA?

Robert Strand, director of the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business introduces the human rights and business panel. Pictured sitting from left to right are Faris Natour, director of the Berkeley Haas Human Rights & Business Initiative, Wilma Wallace, the vice president of Global Sustainability at Gap, Inc. and Dan Bross, the senior director of Business and Corporate Responsibility at Microsoft. Photo by Bruce Cook

Robert Strand, director of the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business introduces the human rights and business panel. Pictured sitting from left to right are Faris Natour, director of the Berkeley Haas Human Rights & Business Initiative, Wilma Wallace, the vice president of Global Sustainability at Gap, Inc. and Dan Bross, the senior director of Business and Corporate Responsibility at Microsoft. Photo by Bruce Cook

Accounting. Finance. Strategy. Management. Leadership. They’re indisputably the basics of an MBA experience. But what about human rights?

Dan Bross, Microsoft’s senior director of Business and Corporate Responsibility, certainly thinks so. “As far as I know, Haas and the Stern School are the only two business schools, I think, that have human rights centers or human rights focuses over their curriculum,” believes Bross, who made his comments in front of a packed room at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business. “I actually think the other business schools are not serving the best interest of their students.”

Bross was joined on stage in the Wells Fargo Room by fellow panelist, Wilma Wallace, the vice president of Global Sustainability at Gap, Inc. and moderator, Faris Natour, director of the newly minted Berkeley Haas Human Rights and Business Initiative. The panel, which took place on March 29, was focused on leading business in human rights and part of the Peterson Series hosted by the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley Haas.

“How can students be expected to graduate from business school and come to work for companies like the two represented on this stage if they don’t appreciate the responsibilities they are going to be facing within the work environment,” Bross added. “I honestly think Microsoft and the Gap are not well-served by business schools that don’t include human rights in the curriculum. Just like public officials need to wake up and realize the laws need to be changed to keep up with technology, the business schools need to wake up to the reality of what’s happening in the business world.”

ELITE B-SCHOOLS HIRING HUMAN RIGHTS EXPERTS

Bross might be onto something. Just a few weeks ago, the Hult International Business School released a joint study that found 71% of the world’s companies believe modern slavery exists somewhere within their supply chain. If you eat chocolate, use a cell phone or wear cotton, you are probably contributing to some form of slavery, according to a Stanford MBA charged. Every year for the past five years, human rights issues have surfaced as the most pressing problem in sustainability for business practitioners in GlobeScan’s annual study. And the issues of human rights certainly aren’t limited to children working around the clock in a textile factory in some far off developing nation. The recent Apple-FBI legal squabble is an example of a classic first world problem and likely a precursor to the growing conflict of privacy versus safety in an increasingly techie world.

Once confined to public policy and law schools, human rights centers and initiatives are beginning to surface on B-school campuses. When the United Nations published its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, the New York University Stern School of Business hired two influential human rights experts in Sarah Labowitz and Michael Posner and launched its Center for Business and Human Rights in 2013. And now, nearly three years later, at the opposite end of the country, Berkeley Haas becomes the second elite business school to make a similar investment by hiring Natour from industry and giving him the academic freedom to impact curriculum.

MAINSTREAMING HUMAN RIGHTS IN ELITE B-SCHOOLS TO FILL AN EDUCATIONAL GAP

There are a number of reasons for the rising interest in human rights. Technology has made the deepest parts of the global supply chain more transparent. Advocacy groups are demanding more responsible business. Millennials appear more keenly aware and interested in the issue. Emerging markets and new economies within established markets are creating complex issues that bring human rights challenges to the front and center.

“Companies are facing these really complex issues of human rights, which are rooted in politics, geography, development and these really complex questions,” Labowitz explains in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Companies are facing these questions all the time, but they’re not being addressed in business schools.”

Labowitz and the team from Berkeley Haas are seeing an equal demand from students and industry, alike. While Labowitz points towards an increasingly global and internationally-focused group of MBA students coming to NYU Stern, Robert Strand, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley Haas, says the culture of his school naturally attracts a compassionate and progressive breed of business student.

  • DeeFan

    For so long as C-suite types are pushing lowering of costs and increase in revenue, the lower downs will (i) look the other way, (ii) conduct audits to make it look like they were actually checking on their suppliers, and/or (iii) issue meaningless high fallutin’ policy statements.

    These same pressures have come up under anti-corruption: the c-suites push revenue and the local employees cut corners to keep their jobs.

    Oh, and of course there was the housing & mortgage debacle here in the USA – the push for revenue.

    The c-suites know what is going on, but are happy to look the other way as long as the revenues and profits are going up.

    The only antidote is jail time. Fines are useless.

  • bwanamia

    The long march through the institutions sets up housekeeping in the b-schools. Between this stuff and “social innovation,” there’s not much difference between b-school and a reeducation camp.