How Business Schools Are Finding Global Solutions For Global Challenges

‘When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food clothes.’ Such was the appetite for learning of the Dutch philosopher and scholar, Desiderius Erasmus. Born in Rotterdam in the late 1460s, his studies took him to the University of Paris (now the Sorbonne), the University of Cambridge and the University of Turin, and he held teaching position sat Oxford and Leuven. Small wonder that the European Union student exchange programme, which has promoted the mobility of more than 9 million EU students since its creation over 30 years ago bears his name.

In his native Rotterdam the university was named in his honor, and hosts close to 30,000 students from across Europe and the rest of the world for studies in health, social sciences, economics, law, and philosophy.  The Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools, helping students, academics and people in business become a force in positive change.

The dean of the business school, Professor Ansgar Richter clearly shares Desiderius Erasmus’ passion for international education and discovery. He studied Philosophy and Economics in Germany before continuing his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) where he earned an MSc in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management, and a PhD in Management. Following his studies, he worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, advising international clients on matters of strategy and organisation, before moving on to faculty positions at business schools in Germany and the UK. At various points in his academic career, Richter was a visiting scholar at Berkeley, Stanford, and INSEAD, and was the dean of Surrey Business School.

Just three months into his new position as the dean at RSM, Ansgar Richter was faced with the impact of Covid-19, and a pandemic that has required universities and business schools around the world to close campuses and deliver classes virtually. Many of the international exchange programs that undergraduate and Masters / MBA students enjoy and with leading schools across Europe, North America, Latina America, Africa, Asia and Oceania are on hold. 

But Professor Richter has lost none of his belief in the importance of an international learning experience to develop the world’s future business leaders, and if anything he believes that Covid-19 has reinforced the need for international cooperation to find global solutions for global challenges. We connected by Zoom to talk about the some of those challenges, including the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which RSM has embedded in every aspect of the school, its programs and its culture. 

Matt Symonds: Internationalization is deeply engrained at RSM. As you reflect on the impact of the Covid pandemic does internationalization remain a priority for the school and why? What form might it take in the future?

Ansgar Richter: RSM is, and will remain, a truly international school. We have a network of over 170 partner schools worldwide, and we are part of important international networks and communities, such as the CEMS network, the Global Business School Network (GBSN), and many others. We have double degree options with schools such as Bocconi, St. Gallen, ESADE and others that offer outstanding opportunities to students. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, combined with current geo-political developments, have actually made schools like ours a more attractive destination for international students, and we see this in rising application numbers. The Netherlands offer a very well-developed healthcare system, a stable and well-governed political environment, and the port city of Rotterdam is known for its vibrant international culture. And our programmes offer outstanding value for money. Internationalization is just part of our DNA. On a political level, the Covid crisis has shown the value of international cooperation and the search for joint solutions. I grew up in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when Berlin was divided by a wall, and huge fences and mined areas cut the country apart from North to South. There are still political leaders today who believe you can solve your own social and economic problems by building walls. Nothing could be further from the truth. The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t know any borders, it doesn’t have a nationality. At RSM, our students learn about finding global solutions for global challenges.

Symonds: RSM has aligned with the 17 SDGs set out by the UN. Are some more relevant than others for a business education, and what more can be done to embrace these guidelines?

Richter:We embrace all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), yet clearly, some of them are particularly closely related to our research and teaching. On the most basic level, we are a business school, and thus our work contributes to SDGs 8 and 9 (decent work and economic growth, respectively industry, innovation and infrastructure). For example, look at the work that RSM colleagues have been doing in the context of the Erasmus Platform for Sustainable Value Creation, our work on sustainable finance (e.g., the MOOC on Principles of Sustainable Finance, and others. 

Another important trajectory here is the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity initiative, where we cooperate closely with colleagues from Erasmus School of Law and Erasmus School of Philosophy. The work in this initiative also relates to sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11). And many of our researchers, for example in the Technology and Operations Management and the Marketing Departments, work on topics related to responsible consumption and production (SDG 12). As a School, we have developed a complete video series on the SDGs.

With respect to our programmes, our MSc programmes in Global Business and Sustainability offers a great example of how the SDGs can be integrated and taught in a curriculum. 

A school that wants to be serious about the SDGs needs to put its money where its mouth is. Over the past 10 years, we have invested hugely in faculty, research, curriculum development and awareness creation. I know of few other schools that can match the depth of expertise we have at RSM on this topic area.

Symonds: You advocate the need to provide a business education with society in mind. Why is this sense of a greater good important, and what are the skills the next generation of leaders need? 

Richter: Our students at RSM are in search of deeper meaning. They want the pursue business with a purpose, and they are not willing to sacrifice principles of responsibility on the altar of profitability. Among our students and alumni, I see an enormous degree of creativity and passion. Just take a look at the businesses submitted to and recognized by the RSM I WILL Award over the past ten years: All of them founded by RSM alumni, sometimes in cooperation with researchers and other members of our community. These businesses range from companies that use the energy emitted from data centers to heat greenhouses (the 2020 winner) to waste reduction schemes, medical innovations, and sustainable production of consumer goods, and others.

Our programs at RSM combine reflective and analytical skills with practical and interactive ones. Our students benefit from being part of a large school that in itself is part of a leading social sciences university – this offers additional opportunities for interdisciplinary thinking and insight.

Symonds: How should business education evolve to meet these training needs?

Richter: The programs offered at many business schools resemble the way people watched TV in the 1970s and early 1980s: There is a limited (if growing) range of programs with fixed starting dates (enrolment dates), pre-defined duration, and limited options within the programmes to tailor the programmes to your own needs. This has also traditionally been the case at RSM. However, student demands have changed. As a result, we have begun to break up this model. Look for example at the modular design of our part-time Executive Master in Corporate Communication, which participants can join the programme at any time. Even in our large-scale Bachelor program, we are implementing a unique new design (the “Boost the Bachelor” initiative), which provides students with significantly more choice. 

And of course, technology will continue to change the nature of our programs, both in terms of the mode of delivery, as well as in terms of the content of what we teach. Our MSc programme in Business Information Management which includes tracks in Data Science and in Digital Business, provides a great example. What I find particularly pleasing is that 98% of all graduates from this programme are in employment within three months of graduating from this programme. 

In terms of delivery, our main push will be into blended modes of education. We are considering fully online programmes as well, but we continue to believe in direct human encounters, direct exchange, and the cultural experience of meeting with others. That’s also why we integrate international exchanges, study tours and residentials in many of our programs, most prominently perhaps in our MBA and EMBA programs.

Symonds: RSM will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year. What are your priorities for the years ahead?

Richter: Over the past 50 years, RSM has been hugely successful, and we have a lot to celebrate, to preserve, and to build on. In particular, RSM has become a leading player in the world in terms of original knowledge creation (a term I prefer over the more traditional word “research”). The latest Academic Ranking of World Universities (the so-called “Shanghai Ranking”) which just came out rates us as 3rdin the world in business administration, and 4th in management, ahead of institutions such as MIT, Duke, Columbia, Northwestern University, Stanford, and many others. Our challenge now is to manage the transition towards becoming a fully impact-led institution, to ensure that the knowledge created at RSM transforms not only academia, but the world around us. This needs to include more explicitly the city of Rotterdam and the Randstad region in which we are located.

When I came to RSM last year, I was surprised to find that our brand is better known internationally than it is in the Netherlands, although there are many Fortune 500 companies such as Philips and Unilever, as well as a wealth of highly successful mid-sized firms, right at our doorsteps! We need to connect with them even more closely. We have started this year by evidencing our impact more systematically by conducting the Business School Impact System (BSIS) assessment offered by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), and we have been positively surprised by how much change RSM has effected in its region already. 

Our global alumni base of over 43,000 is of major importance in this respect. If you look at the top 500 companies in the Netherlands, there is no other university that will have educated so many senior executives as we have. We have 35 alumni chapters around the world, and I can’t wait to visit them once the travel restrictions have been lifted again. In order to develop true impact, we also need to work even more closely than we have in the past with the other schools within Erasmus University, and with other leading institutions in the region. Originally, RSM developed as the Inter-Faculty Business Administration together with the Technical University of Delft and the University of Leiden, and we are currently strengthening the ties with these other institutions. Together, we can multiply the impact each of us is having, and our research will go stronger still. 

Symonds: More than 10,000 RSM students, researchers, staff, professors and alumni have taken part in a goal-setting exercise, I WILL to create a statement that reflects the positive change they want to se. What is your I WILL statement, and why?

Richter: My I WILL statement is simply, I WILL make a positive difference. At the end of each day, I want to be able to look back and say, today I have made a difference to the world around me – to the School, to our students and stakeholders, to society overall. I am grateful that RSM offers outstanding opportunities to make a positive difference; there is room for creativity, true thought leadership and rich academic debate and learning here. And it is a place where decision makers, influencers and other stakeholders come together, from industry leaders, entrepreneurs, NGOs to politicians. What a better place to make a positive difference!

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