For A B-School That Is Already A Leader In The Space, A New Major Investment In Sustainability

Sustainability may be the most important concept in graduate business education right now. It certainly is one of the most popular — powered by students’ growing awareness of the need to act to mitigate climate change, and a desire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

At most U.S. business schools, sustainability is not a new discipline. Many have MBA concentrations and degree programs built around it as a discipline; others — like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School — have been active in the space for so long that they have woven sustainability into just about everything they do. Now, as the world catches up to what they’ve helped to pioneer, these schools are making a renewed push with new research, new programs, and new initiatives to meet the new demand.

UNC’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise was founded more than two decades ago. Thanks to a major gift from the estate of a late alumnus announced today (April 29), the center will get a new name, new building, and new fellowships for MBA students — all in service to its sustainability mission.


Charles Ackerman died in 2017 at 84

Charles S. Ackerman graduated from UNC in 1955 and died in 2017 at 84. His estate has given the Kenan-Flagler Business School a gift valued at $11 million to support and enhance the sustainability center’s education, research, outreach, and best practices missions. The center will be renamed in his honor: the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability.

The gift also supports the center’s space in a new building that expands and enhances the UNC Kenan-Flagler campus. The new building will meet LEED Gold standards as a baseline for sustainability with the goal of achieving LEED platinum. Groundbreaking is scheduled for September 2022, with the opening planned for fall 2024, according to a UNC news release.

The endowed gift also will support MBA fellowships, expanded offerings in the undergraduate business program, increased research capacity by supporting Ph.D. students as Sustainability Fellows, and center operations and additional staff members, the school announced.


“For over 20 years, our center has empowered students, faculty and business leaders to identify, create and deliver innovative, profitable business solutions while improving social equity and environmental integrity,” says Doug Shackelford, dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler. “This is a rare and transformational gift that will have tremendous impact on our students’ lives and the organizations where they work.”

Ackerman, who had a successful career in real estate, wanted to advance what future business leaders learn and how leaders address environmental issues, Shackelford says. This gift counts toward the Campaign for Carolina, the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the university’s history, which launched in October 2017 with a goal to raise $4.25 billion by Dec. 31, 2022.

“Charlie Ackerman was a visionary businessman and a real estate legend,” Shackelford says. “He also was a visionary when it came to appreciating the impact that our Center for Sustainable Enterprise could contribute to the school’s mission to develop leaders who make the world a better place and how his support could advance the center’s important work.”


Jeff Mittelstadt: “You find sustainability in all industries and applied through all functions”

Sustainability is woven across the Kenan-Flagler School as well as the UNC campus, from strategy to finance to supply chain and more, says Tracy Triggs-Matthews, associate director of the center.

“UNC Kenan-Flagler was a first mover among business schools to offer a comprehensive curriculum in sustainability in 1999 and today we are known for our innovative curriculum, relevant research and career development,” Triggs-Matthews says.

“When Mr. Ackerman visited the school in 2011 we shared the full scope of our work — from teaching to extracurricular programs to research to stakeholder outreach — and how our graduates leave UNC Kenan-Flagler prepared to implement what they have learned to change the world and how our research can have an impact on the practice of business.”

Adds Olga Hawn, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and the center’s faculty director: “Sustainability is a strategic pillar of UNC Kenan-Flagler and we approach it broadly and deeply. Understanding the drivers of sustainability strategy and the different ways it is implemented are imperatives for organizations around the world. Through our research and education, we connect theory and practice and build understanding and awareness for all stakeholders.”


The center’s approach is based on finding opportunities where there are shared interests, says Jeff Mittelstadt, professor of the practice of strategy and entrepreneurship and the center’s executive director.

“You find sustainability in all industries and applied through all functions,” Mittelstadt says. “Challenging ourselves to simultaneously improve social impact, environmental integrity and profitability leads to innovations that we realize by collaborating.”

UNC Kenan-Flagler offers courses in sustainability in its undergraduate business, MBA, and Ph.D. programs.

“First of all, we are here for our students,” Mittelstadt says. “Because we have been serving them for so long, we have an incredible network of alumni who work in just about every function in every industry: the energy sector, impact investing, blended finance and supply chain. They are entrepreneurs, environmental, social and governance (ESG) analysts and consultants. They work at global multinational corporations like Burt’s Bees, Nike and Apple to chemical, textile and food production companies and startups.”

Read more about the Center for Sustainable Enterprise here and watch this video marking its 20th anniversary.


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