Choose Your Own Sustainability Credential: Michigan Ross’ New ESG Concentration Or Erb Dual Degree

University of Michigan Erb Institute MBA/MS students tour companies, nonprofits, and other ventures to see sustainability business practices in action each year for the Erb on the Road trips. This year, they toured southern Vermont in a trek they’ve dubbed vErbmont. Courtesy photo

Earlier this month, University of Michigan Ross School of Business announced a new ESG concentration for its full-time MBA program, joining a small but growing class of business schools adding sustainability-focused concentrations and certifications to their programs.

It’s no wonder. As companies face more environment, social, and governance regulations and public pressure, many are looking to confront those challenges in house. Sustainability credentials on an MBA resume can be a powerful signal.

“There’s this misconception that business sustainability students go work in government agencies or charity organizations. It’s actually the exact opposite,” says Terry Nelidov, managing director of the Erb Institute at University of Michigan.

“We encourage our students to go out to the core functions of business to compete for the best consulting jobs, the best investment banking jobs, the best energy jobs, venture capital, and startups, and to bring sustainability into those roles. It’s actually a small percentage of our students that go to nonprofits – and they’re typically at large global nonprofits – and even a smaller percentage that go to government agencies.”

Michigan Ross now offers two paths for MBAs who want a sustainability credential: The Erb Institute Dual Degree or the new ESG concentration for its full-time MBAs.


The Erb Institute at UMich– a partnership between the Ross School and the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) – was founded in 1996, long before sustainability and ESG became B-school buzzwords.

It was named for Fred and Barbara Erb who had turned their successful lumber operation and store into a regional hardware chain. Fred Erb, a University of Michigan alum himself, had a special affinity for the Great Lakes region and its natural resources, and he recognized the intertwined relationship between business and the environment in which it operated.

“It was absolutely unique at the time,” Nelidov says of the institute’s founding. “The Erb family had a really unique vision, and Fred and Barbara saw a connection between business and the environment, and a way of looking at business as not always the problem, but also as a big part of the solution.”

The institute began with a pioneering dual degree, simultaneously granting candidates an MBA from the Ross School and a Master of Science from SEAS. Today, candidates complete the program in two and half to three years (compared to two years for the MBA). At Ross, students learn the same management, strategy and leadership fundamentals as every other Ross MBA, while at SEAS they learn about Earth systems with a strong social justice focus.

Because of the extended length of the program, students have the opportunity to complete two internships instead of one, giving them room to explore different companies and roles.


In the last 30 years, the institute has grown both horizontally and vertically, Nelidov says. It expanded its environmental focus into what it calls “robust sustainability,” which considers human rights, DEI, and other social topics alongside topics like climate change, clean water, and biodiversity. It’s also expanded its own operations from primarily teaching and research into business engagement.

It provides numerous co-curricular opportunities for its students to get out of the classroom and work on real sustainability business problems. Erb Institute’s Impact Projects provides funding to support either partner-led or student- created sustainable business projects. Erb on the Road takes students directly to nonprofits and businesses pursuing sustainability across Michigan.

Students can also engage directly with two Erb roundtables supporting senior business leaders, both in Michigan and at the national level. The Michigan Business Sustainability Roundtable includes senior leaders from companies like Ford, BedRock, General Motors, and others. The Erb Principles for Corporate Political Responsibility outlines an actionable, non-partisan template for companies to determine whether and how to engage in political issues.

After nearly three decades, the Erb Institute has an alumni class of more than 700 working in 17 countries around the world. They call themselves Erbers For Life and gather for alumni reunions every two years.

The breadth of roles they work in is as varied as the alumni themselves, says Ian Kwant, program coordinator for the Erb Institute.

“I think what links all of our students is this passion for sustainable business and, now with a lens of justice in that conversation. They take it in so many different directions whether it’s through nonprofits or social enterprises, or renewable energy, waste management, venture capital startups or green tech.

“We have students who are interested in sustainable food and agriculture, and students who are interested in sustainable fashion. It gives them an opportunity to kind of Trojan horse themselves into these companies and really entrench the values of sustainability at these large corporations.”


The new Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Concentration, announced on January 19, will be oriented to second-year full-time MBA students, says Catherine Johnson, adjunct lecturer and managing director of Business+Impact at Michigan Ross.

The concentration requires a minimum of 12 credits, including three core courses: Strategies for Sustainable Development, at both the firm and market levels, as well as Equity Analytics studying ESG metrics and data analysis.

Students will also complete at least 6.75 elective credits with a minimum of one course each in Environmental, Social, and Governance focus areas.

The concentration was designed to prepare MBAs to confront big issues like climate change and transform how their organizations engage with the natural environment. It also trains students to better navigate the needs of a changing workforce while providing better accountability to investors and stakeholders.

“We aim to equip students with the tools to lead in a world where decarbonization is imperative. Business can be a positive force for progress in the world, and the ESG concentration prepares Ross graduates to make that happen,” says Jerry Davis, Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration and professor of management and organizations, in the announcement.

Learn more about the new ESG concentration here.


Nelidov has worked in sustainability for 25 years. He previously worked with a sustainable consulting firm where he and his colleagues used to talk about putting themselves out of a job, that someday companies would take on sustainability issues internally, reducing their reliance on outside consultants.

“That was 15 years ago, but it’s finally happening. The last three to five years, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in in-house sustainability roles at companies,” he says.

It’s happening at finance companies, insurance companies, and manufacturers, and other industries who are increasingly asked or required to understand their climate impacts through their own operations as well as their global supply chains. Ag companies must now confront how the climate impacts their growing seasons and how their operations, in turn, impact climate. And on and on.

“And sometimes what we’re hearing is that we in the business school community in the U.S. are not reacting fast enough. These core competencies in climate and stakeholder engagement, in human development, and business and human rights, we’re not acting fast enough to get these into the core classes that are required of all MBAs,” Nelidov tells P&Q.

“So, I think our challenge going forward is how we meet this increasing demand.”


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