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Mission Sustainability

Paul Adler believes it's important to get his students thinking about what's ahead of them...and why.

April 22, 2022
Paul Adler, professor of Management and Organization
Paul Adler, Harold Quinton Chair of Business Policy and Professor of Management and Organization, USC Marshall.

About a decade ago, Thomas Cummings, then chair of the Department of Management and Organization, asked veteran professor Paul Adler to take over an undergraduate course on business ethics, conveniently ignoring the fact that Adler had no experience teaching ethics or undergraduates.

“I think you’ll enjoy it,” Cummings told a skeptical Adler, who devoted much of his early teaching and scholarship to topics like technology strategy and organization design.

“I’m eager to help students see how our collective responsibility for environmental sustainability is going to affect their professional and personal lives."

Adler gave the undergraduate course a spin and quickly found he enjoyed the topic and the students’ enthusiasm. After a few runs through the course, however, Adler found that the problems he most wanted to discuss didn’t neatly fall under the “ethical” banner. He wanted to get students thinking about why our current social arrangements left people with these ethical issues.

“If a parent is too poor to afford medication for their sick child and considers robbing a pharmacy, there is an interesting ethical issue, but I wanted to get students thinking about the wider issue: why was the medication so unaffordable in the first place?” Adler said.

Adler then evolved the course into one on Business, Government and Society. A few years in Adler found the issues arousing the greatest student interest were related to environmental sustainability, so he developed a pair of new electives on that theme for undergraduates and MBAs.

“I’m eager to help students see how our collective responsibility for environmental sustainability is going to affect their professional and personal lives,” Adler said.

“I realize there are some folks who are still not convinced that we face a ‘climate emergency’ and who worry that people like me are exaggerating the urgency of our environmental problems. They may prove to be right. After all, a century and half ago, there was widespread concern that we would going to run out of coal and the industrial revolution would stall as a result,” he continued. “However, all the science is pointing in the same direction: we are not going to get off this dangerous downward spiral without concerted effort and a major change in business practices. So, we better get our act together.”