Wharton students are central stakeholders in an educational institution. They bring a set of aspirations and expectations they want to see reflected in the organizations with which they affiliate. In many conversations I’ve had with our students since becoming dean, a consistent topic emerged: the importance of driving environmental, social, and governance (ESG) awareness.
Joseph Wharton recognized that both public and private sectors can — and should — do good in the world. He believed that everyone deserved opportunities to participate in the economic advancement of society. Today, that advancement has expanded to include consideration of issues like our relationship with the environment, our role in creating equitable societies, and our responsibility to provide value to all shareholders through transparent corporate governance. As a strategic approach, ESG is good for business and good for society — creating a framework for societal impact that lives out Joseph Wharton’s vision.
Wharton’s talented students believe in stakeholder welfare and are deeply connected to matters of ESG. They are voting with their feet and pursuing careers that match their values, as are Wharton alumni industry trendsetters who are blazing trails in ESG by leading organizations from BlackRock to Nasdaq to the United Nations.
A shift is also occurring in the marketplace as company valuations become more complex, taking into account operational efficiencies and intangible non-market factors. Increasingly, companies are seeking skills and academic knowledge grounded in ESG. As sustainable investments hit record highs, climate change inflicts greater risks, and financing of renewable energy intensifies, Wharton needs to prepare students to lead at the forefront of this emerging field.
In our classrooms, undergraduate and graduate students can choose from more than 50 courses related to social impact. As students learn and build their skills, ESG will continue to rise as a strategic academic focus. This past fall, Wharton’s Beyond Business lecture series focused its attention on ESG. Through conversations with faculty, alumni, and industry leaders on topics such as how companies are tackling the climate crisis, redefining corporate governance for the new business era, and elevating awareness of social issues in the workplace, this platform connected students to ESG leaders and presented thoughtful analysis on these pressing issues.
Of course, one of the most important attributes of Wharton is the breadth of its academic departments. From legal studies to marketing, management, and finance, Wharton faculty are exploring the range of issues connected to ESG across disciplines. Through the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, Wharton has circulated 30-plus annual publications on climate analysis. Corporate governance and accountability research is also growing through the impact of the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. And through the recently formed ESG Analytics Lab, Wharton is leveraging its expertise in analytics to develop high-quality, replicable research to help current and future investors, asset managers, and other ESG integrators make informed decisions. Looking forward, we want to grow the application and dissemination of this impactful research. By elevating the reach and relevance of business scholarship, Wharton will inform discovery and insight on the ESG frontier.
Now is the time for Wharton to develop a more formal gateway for students interested in this distinct path. Thank you for joining me as we evolve Wharton — and the world — together.
Erika H. James is dean, Reliance Professor of Management and Private Enterprise, and professor of management at the Wharton School.
Published as “Transforming Business, Changing the World” in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Wharton Magazine.