The 20 Most ‘Deeply Optimistic’ MBA Courses

The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

When Edward Hess approached fellow University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor James “Jim” Freeland with a theory about America’s worsening economic inequality, Freeland admits he wasn’t totally sure what Hess meant.

“I have to admit about five years ago I knew almost nothing about this subject,” Freeland tells Poets&Quants.

Hess sent him a few New York Times articles on economic and wealth inequality in the U.S. and its impact on social mobility. One article stood out to Freeland. Since 1979, Freeland paraphrases, a very high proportion of wealth and income in the U.S. has gone to the richest 1%.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Freeland says. “That didn’t sound like the America I knew about. It wasn’t the world the way I thought it was.”

As a self-described “data guy,” Freeland decided to dig deeper. He looked at the methodology of some of the studies the Times referenced and looked at even more research. “I found that every year, actually, things have gotten worse in terms of the income and wealth inequality,” Freeland says. So Freeland and Hess decided it should be a topic of a new course at Darden. Four years ago, they launched Economic Inequality and Social Mobility for full-time MBA students. The plan was to teach it similar to a doctoral-level seminar course with about 20 students. And then they ended up with 40. The next year it climbed to 50, then 70 the following year, and 65 this past year. “What we found is that there was a great deal of interest among the students,” Freeland says, acknowledging the course has evolved a lot over the four years it has been offered.


Jim Freeland

The course, which is co-taught with Edward Freeman, a strategy and ethics professor at Darden, was recently selected as one of 20 courses by the Aspen Institute as an “Ideas Worth Teaching” course. The global nonprofit think-tank has been awarding innovative business professors since 1999. This year, the Ideas Worth Teaching Awards were handed out based on courses that “inspire and equip future business leaders to tackle the issues of our time,” a release announcing the winners says.

“This year’s winning courses focus on critical social issues ripped from the headlines — populism, water scarcity and artificial intelligence among them — and illuminate how and why these issues are business issues. Collectively, these courses paint a picture of what is possible in management education,” the release reads.

Courses come from universities across the world, but are mainly located at American universities. They range in topics from alternative economic models to sustainable business tactics to impact investing.

“At a time when business leaders face intense scrutiny about their role in social issues, these award-winning faculty are bravely challenging the ‘norms’ of what is taught in business school — and creating leaders who can navigate a highly uncertain environment,” Claire Preisser, the associate director of Aspen BSP said in the release.


Freeland says their course explores what people can do as individuals to combat economic inequality, what the government can do, but mainly, what businesses can do, which does seem counterintuitive to the traditional bottom line-driven entities.

“Students go away with a much greater understanding of what exactly economic inequality is, how you measure it, what the causes of it are, what the future probably looks like giving the technology that is coming along, and we spend a lot of time talking about what we should do about it,” Freeland explains.

According to Freeland, businesses might be forced to think about it in the future, whether they want to or not.

“We have leaders around the world and within the United States saying this might be the biggest threat that we face over the near future.”

See the entire list of courses below with links to their descriptions and professor bios.

Alternative Economic Models — Sandrine Stervinou, Audencia Business School

Business Ethics: Critical Thinking Through Film — Jadranka Skorin-Kapov, Stony Brook University College of Business

Economic Growth, Technology and Structural Change — Peter Kriesler, University of New South Wales Business School

Economic Inequality and Social Change — James Freeland and Edward Freeman, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Fault Lines and Foresight — Regina Abrami, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School

Human Capital Sustainability — Patrick McHugh, George Washington University School of Business

Impact Investing and Social Finance — C. Sara Minard, Northeastern University D’Amore-McKim School of Business

Intrapreneurship: Leading Social Innovation in Organizations — Jerry Davis and Chris White, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Issues in CSR — Talia Aharoni, Tel Aviv University Coller School of Management

Management of Services: Concepts, Design, and Delivery — Zeynep Ton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

Peer-to-Peer Economies — Melissa Bradley, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business

Prospering Over the Long-Term — Tima Bansal, Western University Ivey Business School

Reimagining Capitalism: Business and the Big Problems — Rebecca Henderson and George Serafeim, Harvard Business School

Sustainability and Environmental Accounting — Dror Etzion, McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management

Sustainability Tools and Processes for New Initiatives — Robert Sroufe, Duquesne University Palumbo-Donahue Graduate School of Management

Sustainable Business in Iceland — Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Technological Change at Work — Adam Seth Litwin, Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations

The End of Globalization? — David Bach, Yale University School of Management

Urban and Regional Economics — Jaime Luque, University of Wisconsin School of Business

Why Business? — Matthew Phillips, James Otteson, & Adam Hyde, Wake Forest University School of Business


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