Stern Center Brings Human Rights into Business Education

Human rights issues in mineral-rich, war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo are on the radar at Stern's Center for Business and Human Rights. - Ethan Baron photo

Human rights issues in mineral-rich, war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo are on the radar at Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights. – Ethan Baron photo

Tucked away in a small office in a quiet corner of New York University’s Stern School of Business, Michael Posner, one of the most influential human rights experts in the U.S., is leading a movement that he hopes will fundamentally change the way business schools approach human rights. For the last year-and-a-half, he and his team have been building from the ground up The Center for Business and Human Rights, the first of its kind at a business school in the U.S.

“The term human rights to some people has a halo, and everyone wants to get under that halo and say what (they) are doing (promotes) human rights. On the other side, there is a sense that . . . (this) really doesn’t have any practical meaning,” Posner says. “What we are trying to do is take the very structured definition of human rights (as defined under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and say, ‘Okay, how does that apply to business?’”

That’s not an easy task, but Posner, who has worked in the human rights field since 1978, is not a man who shies away from challenges. He came to NYU fresh from a stint at the U.S. State Department, where he served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and worked on a range of complex issues, from Internet freedom to refugee and asylum law and policy.

Posner and his co-director, Sarah Labowitz, who also worked with him at the State Department, were looking for a way to bridge the gap between human rights and the business world, a space where they felt the topic was not getting enough attention.

GLOBAL ISSUES CONFRONT COMPANIES AT HIGHEST LEVEL

“If you are going to run a Fortune 500 company in the 21st Century, you are going to be global and these issues are going to confront you at the highest level,” Posner says. “Rather than react, it makes sense that people in the business world have studied it and have a sense of what the options are.”

Posner and Labowitz last month wrote, as directors of the center, to President Barack Obama, urging him to strengthen and enforce U.S. human rights laws and policies with respect to U.S. businesses operating abroad in countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

For Posner and Labowitz, their mission at the Stern School is straightforward but challenging: develop a human rights curriculum for business schools, create a safe space where stakeholders can come to discuss challenging human rights issues, and conduct public reporting and advocacy.

Administrators at NYU were keen on the idea when Posner and Labowitz approached them, especially NYU Stern dean Peter Henry. He was eager to hire faculty that would help put Stern at the center of the conversation about global business, one of NYU’s goals since it rapidly expanded its global footprint in 2010. Posner’s work on complex issues, such as labor rights in the global supply chain to security and human rights in the extractive industry, made him the ideal person to build the Center for Business and Human Rights from the ground up, Henry says.

“Posner’s experience emphasizes that when smart companies work to respect human rights, it helps them manage risks, create markets, and meet the expectations of consumers, investors and employees,” Henry says. “In short, the center teaches us that profit and principle can coexist.”

HUMAN RIGHTS GET SHORT SHRIFT

Typically, centers that study human rights in academia are housed in either law schools or public policy schools, with little crossover to the undergraduate business and MBA student population. At most business schools today, human rights gets lumped alongside hot-button topics like ethics or social enterprise, addressed peripherally in the classroom if at all, Posner says.

Claire Preisser, senior program manager of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society program, says she believes a center devoted to human rights anchored in a business school is an important step forward for the management education world, especially with the rapid evolution of issues like fracking and its impact on communities, and technology and its implications for privacy, she says.