How Rotterdam School of Management's New Mission Hopes to Achieve Change

How Rotterdam School of Management's New Mission Hopes to Achieve Change main image

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) at Erasmus University wants to show everyone its new mission is “to be a force for positive change in the world”. Following a year of formulating the right plan, the school announced its revised statement and shift in approach in 2017.

Originally, administrators expected the vision to be a much longer statement, but leaders kept whittling it down. RSM Dean Steef van de Velde says, “Someone had the insight and said, ‘The better the school, the shorter the mission statement’”.

This simple, yet effective turn of phrase was the product of hours of discussion that began at an executive strategy retreat, which revolutionized the school’s trajectory. Although faculty, staff, alumni, and the advisory board had input, students were the driving force behind the change.

In the 10,000 to 12,000 “I will” statements, which are a summary of long-term goals the school collects from students, many suggested they wanted to contribute to the improvement of society. Now, students are regular participants in this movement.

Every three months or so, the school has a town hall meeting, where people can express their views on what’s happening. The community seems happy about the school’s new mission, and participants keep each other accountable.

“We’re challenged all the time to walk the talk,” says van de Velde. “That’s a good thing”.

The school has taken a pro-active approach to prove it’s serious about its decision. Here are some of the ways it’s effecting change:

Revised curricula

Making students aware of the mission and the role the community thinks they should play in society is fundamental, says van de Velde. The curricula has changed to reflect this renewed sense of purpose, and of course teaching relevant case studies is part of the plan.

However, the school is still in the process of adapting its offerings to the new mission. It won’t happen overnight, says van de Velde, but will be more of a continuous evolution.


Some professors were already interested in research related to doing good while doing well and other relevant topics, but now the school actively promotes relevant studies.

Professor Dirk Schoenmaker recently provided a framework for sustainable finance. The school’s professors are working on a book series about how sustainable goals relate to business which will hopefully encourage others to take on the same greater purpose. 

Personal leadership development

Leadership is a major component of any business program, but now the emphasis is on showing students the bigger picture. The school uses the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a guide for demonstrating how businesses, and those who lead them, can address social problems.

Admissions changes

The admissions director decided the school should incorporate its mission into the application process. Applicants must describe how they have or can be a force for positive change in the world to be considered for a slot in the program.

“There are lots of bottoms-up initiatives”, says van de Velde. “The adjustment of the admissions policy is an example of this. I never thought of it, the director did.”

Faculty hiring/promotion

In accordance with the new mission, the school will hire and promote faculty members dedicated to teaching others about using their role in business to make social change. Another consideration for hiring and promotion might include the candidate’s research portfolio and whether it includes relevant material.

Remaining true to the cause

One of the U.N.’s suggestions is making a decent education accessible to everyone. This gave the dean pause, he says, because the school continues to raise the bar for admissions. This means it’s becoming harder to attain an education at RSM.

To avoid hypocrisy while remaining rigorous and selective, the school has started working with high school students in parts of Rotterdam, where the dropout rate is staggering. Members of the community help them make “I will” statements, so they can imagine a brighter future, says van de Velde. They encourage the students to stay in school by using the students’ own language. It’s a form of mentorship and what van de Velde calls a “leadership program for high school kids”.

More schools are taking this revised view on business as a means of tackling social ills and challenges facing the planet and its people. RSM’s path falls in line with efforts at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management and Grenoble Ecole de Management, for example.

Previously, people referred to such efforts as teaching “sustainable business,” but van de Velde says the phrase “sustainability” is too limiting. There’s more to this movement than protecting the environment, although that’s one portion of it. In addition, the schools taking on these kinds of programs don’t want to forget their original premise either.

“We still firmly believe businesses need to make decent profits to survive,” says van de Velde.

However, he stresses that greed is no longer good, if it ever was, among the MBA crowd.

“We need to do more than follow the US model of setting up students to make a lot of money,” he says.

Although American schools are also taking on some of these issues in business school, they’re not quite as motivated as the Europeans in this moment. Some suggest this is, in part, because of cultural and political divides.

“We’re in a part of the world, where the stakeholder is more important than the shareholder,” says van de Velde. “Everyone pays huge taxes and has a base income. The stakeholder’s value is important. The main goal of life here isn't to be very rich, it’s to be happy.”

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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