John Skalbeck, professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, was going on sabbatical when development of the UW online Sustainable Management programs started to gain momentum. Not one to shy away from pushing the educational envelope, Skalbeck decided to jump into the mix.
“I had time, and this was something I believed would be a strong program,” says Skalbeck. “The idea of changing business to incorporate sustainability concepts was something that fit right into my background. Another interest was the online approach because it wasn’t something I’d experienced before, but I was intrigued by how it might work.”
The program was created as a collaborative effort between and several UW campuses across the state. It offered Skalbeck – who graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor’s degree in geology, received his master’s degree in geology from Western Washington University, and earned his Ph.D. in hydrogeology from the University of Nevada – another way to bring his years of experience to the world of higher education. Before turning to a career in academia, Skalbeck’s work was literally grounded in the environment, specifically groundwater and soil contamination, and remediation.
“I worked as a consultant and focused on identifying problems related to groundwater and soil contamination from things like gas station storage tanks, oil refineries, dry cleaning solvents, industrial use of chemicals for degreasing parts – anything that might involve contaminants getting into the soil and groundwater,” Skalbeck says. “My job was to characterize the problems and design remediation efforts for cleanup.”
Skalbeck’s experience in research and project work showing the impact people can have on the environment became a natural fit when he decided to pursue a career in academia.
“For me, having a professional background in the costs of sloppy business practices as related to the environment gives me a unique perspective,” Skalbeck says. “It’s not just about identifying problems and helping clean them up, but teaching people how to avoid them in the first place. It’s about helping create long-term models to minimize negative impacts. It’s the concept of the triple bottom line, which is a key focus in our Sustainable Management program.”
The concept of the triple bottom line is that business success is no longer defined only by monetary gain, but also by the impact of an organization’s activities on society and the environment. He says students learn that the triple bottom line involves consideration of:
- Vibrant communities (People): An organization has a responsibility to its employees and to the wider communities in which it works. A triple bottom line company understands how its practices affect the corporation, its workers, and its wider stakeholders, and it works to promote all of their best interests.
- A healthy environment (Planet): Without question, committing to sustainable environmental practices is good business. Corporations can save money and reduce their environmental footprints by reducing waste, conserving energy, and maintaining environmentally safe manufacturing processes.
- Strong profitability (Profit): Clearly, making money is essential to business success. A triple bottom line company, however, recognizes that its own sustainability rests on its ability to work harmoniously in its social and environmental settings. For this reason, the costs of pollution, worker displacement, and other factors are included in profit calculations.
Skalbeck, who served as the director of environmental studies at UW-Parkside, now teaches courses in the UW Sustainable Management’s master’s track, including “The Natural Environment.” The program helps students enter the workforce with training specific to sustainability practices – a great advantage as companies scramble to find workers able to incorporate concepts like those associated with the triple bottom line into their business practices.
“We are creating a workforce of people who think about sustainability in work terms,” Skalbeck says. “It’s one thing to be trained as an engineer and later adopt sustainability practices. It’s another thing to actually have your academic career steeped in sustainability. Every mode of your thinking is about sustainability.”
Skalbeck thinks the online approach has served as a way to encourage students to pursue a degree in sustainable management by allowing students to excel in nontraditional classroom settings.
“I’ve become convinced the online method is really powerful. For some students, it is superior to sitting in a classroom,” Skalbeck says. “I find many students are more likely to engage in the discussions we have online.”
Skalbeck says whether students graduate through the program’s undergraduate or graduate tracks, his goal is to help students see sustainability as a tool to create positive change. He says he hopes students not only answer the demand for sustainability professionals in the workforce, but also apply their knowledge to their own lives.
“I hope our students walk away with a solid understanding of sustainability concepts and a passion to spread the word,” Skalbecks says. “It’s about effecting change, one step at a time.”