UMN's Certificate in Sustainability Leadership Meets Growing Demand for ESG Expertise

Humphrey School collaborates with Carlson School and Institute on the Environment to offer unique program beginning this fall
April 30, 2024
Open space showing a row of wind turbines, a row of solar panels, and a river
Photo: Getty Images

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs is collaborating to offer a new and innovative certificate in Sustainable Environmental, Social and Governance (SESG) Leadership — the University of Minnesota’s first graduate-level program in this specialty — beginning this fall. 

The program will address a growing need for professionals with the skills to navigate today’s climate, environmental, and social justice challenges.

The multidisciplinary program was developed and is sponsored by the Humphrey School, the Carlson School of Management, and the Institute on the Environment (IonE). 

The program is a great fit for the Humphrey School, according to instructors Steve Kelley and Laura Bishop, who have been at the forefront of ESG awareness at the School; they created and are co-teaching a course, Change Leadership for Environmental, Social, and Governance Action

They both have expertise in the ESG field—Kelley worked on sustainability policy as Gov. Tim Walz’s first commerce commissioner and before then as a state legislator, while Bishop was the chief sustainability officer for Best Buy and commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Currently she leads a consulting practice, Purpose Strategies, to help organizations with their ESG journey.  

What exactly is ESG? 

Laura Bishop and Steve Kelley stand together
Laura Bishop and Steve Kelley. Photo: Bruce Silcox

The acronym ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance, and refers to a set of standards used to measure an organization’s environmental and social impact. 

“The most basic definition of ESG is: meeting the needs of people today without impairing the needs of future generations, and making sure we have not just healthy people and communities, but a healthy planet,” said Kelley. 

While ESG has become a common principle for businesses to adopt for operational and investment purposes, the concept also applies to customers, suppliers, employees and the general public. 

That's one of the reasons the University's new certificate program is unique: it targets the intersection of policy, business, and environmental stewardship with courses that explore applications in areas such as organizational change, supply chain management, financial reporting, and intergenerational justice. 

Kelley noted the curriculum is aligned with the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, which were adopted in 2015. Those goals include several related to the environment and climate change, but also cover things like reducing poverty and hunger; providing quality health care, education, and livable wages; and promoting peace and justice. 

Meeting the demand

The demand for more training and education in ESG leadership has exploded in recent years, said Bishop, and the new certificate program is a response to that. 

“More often than not, employees that have come into the sustainability field in the past have come up from inside their organizations and have built their programs from scratch,” Bishop said, noting that she never had any formal training in ESG before leading Best Buy’s efforts in that area. “So businesses are looking for more expertise and training specifically in sustainability,” for their current employees and for new hires.  

“We see such a desire from the business community to work with students from our class. They want problem solvers,” Bishop said. “This is something to be able to build that next generation of ESG leaders.”

ESG responsibilities go beyond just one or two specific people in an organization, added Kelley.

“Any leader now is going to have to know something about sustainability, and every organization is going to have to think about how sustainability fits into all their operations,” he said. “Basically, every job is now a sustainability job. In human resources, you have to pay attention to fair and livable wages so people and their families can thrive. You need to think about what your carbon footprint is, what kind of waste you generate and how you handle it, and so on. Those are the kinds of things that many organizations haven’t been prepared to address in the past.” 

In the 'sweet spot'

Other colleges and universities have established ESG programs in recent years, although many of them focus primarily on the business aspects of the standards. Kelley said the U of M’s interdisciplinary approach is what sets it apart. 

“We have the policy school and the business school getting together, supported by our environmental institute,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to build and improve the program as we see how students participate, and see what they are asking for in this collaboration.” 

The 12-credit certificate program is in the “sweet spot” from an academic point of view, Kelley said. It takes less time and less money to complete than a master's degree. It’s designed for working professionals as well as graduate students, with courses offered during evenings and weekends and through a mix of online and hybrid modalities. 

“Our approach to ESG instruction underscores our commitment to preparing future leaders who are not only equipped to address pressing global challenges but are also poised to drive meaningful change within their organizations and communities,” said Humphrey School Dean Nisha Botchwey. “This certificate exemplifies our dedication to fostering sustainable solutions and empowering individuals to make a positive impact on the world."

Fall enrollment for the SESG Leadership certificate begins shortly, and is open to all UMN graduate students and non-degree-seeking students.