Erb Perspective Blog

gladwinby Claudia Capos

Over the past 16 years, Thomas N. Gladwin has provided the vision, leadership, inspiration and dedication that has enabled the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise to become the world’s foremost institution for sustainable-enterprise education, and has fostered an influential body of students and alumni who, as change agents, are transforming business, government and nonprofit organizations worldwide.

Now, as Gladwin prepares to retire at the end of April 2014, he talks enthusiastically about the highlights and impact of his decade and a half at the Institute. Gladwin’s tenure began in 1998 when he was appointed the  Max McGraw Chair of Corporate Environmental Management and faculty director of the Corporate Environmental Management Program, or CEMP, the precursor of today’s Erb three-year master’s dual-degree program. Gladwin served as Erb director until 2006 when he became associate director.

“That first year was challenging, because I came into a program that suffered from an absence of leadership and secure endowment funding,” he recalls. “During the first five years of my leadership, we raised $15 million in endowment money and put the entire Erb program on solid footing for perpetuity.” The new funding included a second $5 million gift from benefactors Fred, BBA ’47, and Barbara Erb and two corporate gifts: $2.5 million from Holcim (U.S.) Inc. and $2.5 million from Dow Chemical Co.

With Erb’s endowment secured, Gladwin turned his attention to building enrollment in the three-year MBA/MS program. “When I came to Michigan, we had only a handful of students in CEMP,” he says. “Through our efforts, we were able to achieve an exponential increase in enrollment, and, in the 2000s, the program really took off. I’m quite proud to have been part of that early process.” Gladwin attributes Erb’s meteoric rise to the University of Michigan’s consistent ranking, beginning in 1998, as a top-tier school for environmental and social impact in the biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes Report, sponsored by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute. “Once we started being reviewed by an outside institution and began getting the No. 1 world ranking in early 2000, our external promotion, visibility and reputation soared,” he says.

On the University of Michigan campus, Gladwin faced quite a different challenge in winning acceptance for the Erb Institute and its students. “We were a very minor part of the School of Business Administration and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, which jointly created CEMP, and we were viewed as kind of a deviant bunch,” he recalls. “However, as we grew our enrollment, the old and new deans of both schools began to see the Erb program as one of their most popular graduate programs. What started as something very small has become a catalytic change agent and a mainstream institution,” he remarks. “You can see evidence of this in many ways. The Ross School of Business now has the largest chapter of Net Impact in the world and is viewed as the go-to place for sustainability education in relationship to business leadership. SNRE has become known as the place to mix business and environmental knowledge..”

As the Erb Institute gained traction, it helped to shape the emerging field of sustainable-business education. “A lot of other universities have tried to copy us, but they don’t have the right mix of massive faculty and our tremendous ability to raise money through the endowment process,” Gladwin explains. “At Erb, we have three professors ─ Andy Hoffman, Tom Lyon and myself ─ who hold joint appointments and have one leg in each school. That has provided the foundation for our success.”Erb’s high-caliber teaching and research also have distinguished it from other institutions. “We were able to introduce a new suite of coursework in sustainable enterprise and no other school has been able to replicate it,” Gladwin says. “This has clearly made us a global leader in both the breadth and depth of sustainable-business education.”

Excellence in teaching and research also has been the hallmark of Gladwin’s own career trajectory at Michigan. “My most important impact on teaching and research has been promulgating systems thinking, which has been deemed the No. 1 cognitive skill for leadership in the future,” he says. “This is important, because the world is becoming so much more complex, uncertain and rapid in the velocity of change. The only way to make sense of everything is to make connections, see patterns and understand how the system is operating.” In 1999, Gladwin introduced systems thinking by launching an all-University lecture series on sustainable development and business, which featured talks by the world’s leading experts and authors on sustainability and attracted standing-room-only audiences. The lecture series, he says, “was the catalyst for the U-M as a whole moving toward sustainability.” The series evolved into a joint Ross-SNRE graduate course on Systems Thinking for Sustainable Development and Enterprise that continues to draw students from business and natural resources, as well as engineering, public health economics and other disciplines.

From the very beginning, Gladwin was a good fit for the Erb Institute. “I got into this field early on and stayed,” he says. “I completed my MBA at Michigan in 1971 and went into advertising, where I was assigned to introduce a new laundry detergent and was told to lie about it. I learned early on that the world of Madison Avenue was a corrupt place. That brought me back to U-M to get my Ph.D. in International Business and Natural Resource Policy in 1975. I felt I needed to do something that would have a positive impact on the environment and society.” While Gladwin was a doctoral candidate, he taught the first undergraduate course on global environment at the School of Business Administration in 1972.

To date he has received four awards for “Excellence in Teaching” and, in 2003, was presented with the “Faculty Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement” by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute. Gladwin also is the recipient of 30 foundation and academic awards for research on ecologically and socially sustainable commerce from major national organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the Energy Foundation.  He has authored or co-authored more than 160 articles, cases and chapters on international and environmental management, as well as eight books.

One of Gladwin’s lasting memories is the time he spent with Fred and Barbara Erb. Beginning in early 2000, he would take students to Erb Lumber Co. headquarters in Birmingham, Mich., to meet with the Institute’s founding benefactor. “Fred was a tough-minded businessman and was very loyal to the University of Michigan,” Gladwin remembers. “He used to ask very tough questions, and his eyes would light up when he saw the students.” Gladwin speculates that Barbara’s concern about her grandchildren and the world they would inherit was a key motivation behind the couple’s sizeable endowment gifts to the Institute. “Barbara once said to me, ‘Tom, save the Earth for my grandchildren,’” he recalls. “I think she impressed on Fred how important the mission was to protect the environment.”

During his time at the Erb Institute, Gladwin has done his utmost to fulfill Barbara Erb’s lasting and greatest wish to save the Earth. “I’ve taken students to the ‘dark side’ [of the sustainability debate] to balance out the overly optimistic view of the future they receive in other courses,” he says. “I’ve trained more than 2,000 students in global change and systems thinking. The base of alumni leadership arising from the Institute now represents a very positive and increasingly powerful force for running businesses in an environmentally responsible way. I’ve also helped to get Erb into a very healthy financial endowment situation that ensures it will continue to exist 5,000 years from now.”

If there’s a dark cloud hanging over Gladwin’s future, it is his deeply felt disappointment at the absence of progress in solving the world’s major environmental and social problems. “I’m retiring in a world of deep concern about the welfare of future generations,” he remarks. “I’m saddened when I think about the threats to human survival ─ including global climate change, water scarcity, conflict, poverty and migration ─ that my own grandkids will have to confront.”

Still, there’s a bright side to the doom-and-gloom scenario. Gladwin plans to continue his teaching duties as an emeritus professor at U-M and will devote more time to his consulting business. He and his wife have converted a horse barn on their farm outside Ann Arbor into a solar-passive environmental retreat and creative center that houses their artistic venture, Red Barn Studios. “My new passion is to do art, and I’m creating outdoor sculptures using antique metal parts and stones,” Gladwin says. “The pieces are selling quite well, so you’ll be able to catch me at art shows over the summer.”

Claudia R. Capos has more than 25 years of experience in journalism, publications and media relations. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Journalism, she co-founded and co-published About Ann Arbor Magazine for five years before joining The Detroit News where, over a 10-year period, she held a variety of writing and editing positions and received three Pulitzer Prize nominations. She is a frequent contributor to Erb Institute publications.


Posted in Guest OpEd | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

21 Responses to Honoring Earth Day: Tom Gladwin reflects on a career dedicated to the pursuit of sustainability

  1. Laura Rubin says:

    Thank you being a tremendous leader and the engine of the CEMP/Erb program for many years. Your vision and follow-through provided the direction of the program as it fully developed. It has been a pleasure to see the program grow, becoming a robust program, establish a strong reputation, and attracting talent, students, and funding. I’ve always enjoyed your passion and humor in your pursuits, and hope you find the same in your next endeavors.

    Best to you and Ann,

  2. Terry Nelidov says:

    Tom’s thought leadership, intellectual courage, and personal conviction are what make the Erb Institute unique. I can’t imagine an Erb 2014 without those building blocks in its foundation over the past 20 years. I’m so sorry to see Tom retiring just as I’m joining the Institute. He is truly a voice for so many communities that have no voice at the “sustainability table”. I hope that Tom remains close to the Institute so that we can continue to learn from his wealth of experience.

  3. Maya says:

    The seminar series that Tom organized during his first year at Michigan electrified the U of M community. It was a bad winter, but I remember people battling through the snow to hear the diverse and amazing speakers whom Tom brought to campus. That seminar series investigated and interrogated every corner of the sustainability space, just as Tom continued to do once the speakers had left. Sending you good good wishes for a happy retirement, Tom. I appreciate your concern for our planet.

  4. Sandra Waddock says:

    Tom’s visionary work opened my eyes–and the eyes of many others–to the importance of ecology and sustainability in business. His pathbreaking ideas laid the groundwork for today’s deep and still-evolving understanding of the transdisciplinary nature of business and, more generally human, engagement ecological systems. His work has shaped all of our ideas about sustainability. Tom, congratulations on your retirement. You have truly made a positive difference in the world!

  5. Bill Russell says:

    Hello Tom:

    I vividly recall our first meeting at NYU and hearing about the life cycle costs of a hamburger. You were a major influence to my career then at PricewaterhouseCoopers through today. My years as a CEMP and then Erb advisory board member I felt I was your student. You also introduced me to the likes of Peter Senge, CK Prahalad and John Ehrenfeld for which I am eternally grateful. As an Adjunct Professor at Columbia teaching Green Accounting, I hope to make a difference for my students the way that you have with yours!

    You have much to be proud of!

    Bill Russell

  6. John Erb says:

    Dear Tom,

    Congratulations on your retirement and thank you for your amazing leadership and service at the U-M and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. My parents are no longer with us to take this moment to reflect on the legacy you leave behind, but I will do my best to channel what I am sure they are thinking.
    In 1998, when you became the first endowed chair at the Erb Institute, the state of the Institute was fragile. This fragility was due to numerous reasons, but mainly leadership.
    For one thing, the Institute was then known as “CEMP,” the Corporate Environmental Management Program, because sustainability was not even yet a widely understood concept, and lacked the systemic and holistic approach that you would soon bring to bear.
    Once you took the reins and made these changes, the program grew in stature and number of students, beyond my parents’ wildest expectations.
    Both of my parents enjoyed their regular meetings with you and the students that you would bring to the Erb Lumber Company. The indelible impression left on my parents was a group of young leaders brimming with passion, commitment and involvement far beyond the typical graduate student. Certainly less U-M buildings would have been LEED Certified without the Erbers. They also were impressed with how this continued beyond graduation, when the students carried these talents into mainstream businesses, start-ups, NGOs and consulting.
    Over the years, my parents also learned about the “Satellite Campus” on West Liberty – The Gladwin’s Barn – where many functions were held, cementing the bond of the Erbers and their community.
    On behalf of my parents, Fred and Barbara, and the future Erb generations, we thank you and know the world will be a better place because of your leadership.


  7. Frank Wilhelme says:

    Dear Tom:

    I am pleased to add my congratulations to you on the occasion of your retirement.

    While your many contributions to the field of environmental sustainability reach around the globe, I always associate you with your amazing years of service to the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

    Your enthusiasm and passion for your work provided the Institute with strong leadership in its crucial formative years. Let me mention in particular your work with students. Your dedication in the classroom and as a faculty adviser on hundreds of projects helped shape deeply meaningful experiences for your students.

    On a personal note, I always enjoyed working with you to garner financial support for the Institute. Thank you for your help in maintaining and enhancing strong ties with the Erb family. Your efforts in building the Institute were key to securing the second and third Erb endowment gifts. Also, in my estimate, you deserve much of the credit for both the Dow and Holcim Professorships. In addition, I deeply appreciate your service as holder of the Max McGraw Professorship. Your efforts to maintain close ties with the McGraw family were instrumental in our securing the very generous McGraw Foundation Endowed Scholarship gift.

    In sum, your outstanding career forms a wonderful legacy. My friend, you have contributed mightily to making the world a better place. What more can one ask?

    Again, congratulations!


  8. Nina Henning says:

    Dear Tom, thank you, thank you for your critical contributions to bringing the Erb Institute to the leadership position it now holds in the world of business+sustainability. Your “dark side” perspective was always a good wake up call for your typically optimistic students! And of course, a big thank you to you and Annie for opening up the Gladwin Barn to so many of the most memorable Erb events. Enjoy your new artistic adventures! Nina

  9. Charles Griffith says:

    Hats off to my friend and colleague who has been the driving force in building the country’s preeminent business and environment program in the country! Tom’s contributions have helped to make sustainability thinking a necessity for any modern corporation to survive today. I also particularly appreciated Tom’s creation of the sustainability lecture series in his early days, which was instrumental in creating an impact throughout the larger community — perhaps now reflected in the University’s Planet Blue initiative and the City’s sustainability plan. I have no doubt that Tom will continue to make important contributions to this growing field of study and to the health of the planet well into his retirement!

  10. Tad says:

    I’m not sure what I can add that hasn’t already been said, but Tom is a visionary leader and I will forever be one of his devoted followers. His teaching and mentorship continue to provide me with both a moral compass to identify a path towards a more sustainable future, and the tools to enact change. Recalling his systems thinking lectures never fail to bring a smile to my face and fortify my determination to make a positive difference. Thank you Tom, and good luck with your future endeavors.

  11. Elizabeth Terry says:

    Thank you for your leadership, Tom! Best wishes for a wonderful retirement!

  12. Aaron James says:

    Tom, you’re a visionary. Holding future generations so close to your heart is a heavy load, and the threats to their welfare are sad indeed. But I am inspired by how far we’ve come since the early days of the CEMP program when I first learned about this “provocative” intersection of business and sustainability. Your work paved the way for the Erb Institute to flourish and for this intersection to deepen, and we’ve only begun to see the fruits of this labor. With these challenges, our endeavors may never feel complete or sufficient. But I look back on your contributions and with a hearty “bravo!” wish you the best for this next chapter.

  13. Drew Horning says:

    Tom. I vividly remember the first gathering at the Gladwin farm (when the conference barn was just a twinkle in your eye). There were about 12 of us there who comprised all the CEMPers and we were all meeting you for the first time. Your passion was infectious and you made us all believe we carried the fate of the world on our shoulders. In the years ahead, you became my thesis adviser, co-conspirator, boss, and friend. You had a tremendous impact on me, the program, and the field, and you will be missed. Enjoy your retirement and the good times ahead.


  14. steve percy says:

    Tom, thanks for all you have done for CEMP/ERB/UM. Your passion for all of these Institutions has helped make them the great successes that they have been and are. I want to personally thank you for the opportunities you gave me to be a part of the ERB story. When I came free from my oil company career, you gave me the chance to teach one of the core requirements of the ERB curriculm, and it was an experience I will always cherish, as it got me directly involved with the students, which was and is, in my mind, what ERB is all about. In addition, it was great to have a faculty member with who I could rejoice and commisurate with about the fortunes of the Wolverines on the gridiron. All the best in “retirement”. However, be careful, as I have found it to be alot more attention consuming than everyday work!


  15. Jamie Hendry says:

    I recall meeting Tom at one of the first conferences I attended as a doctoral student in 1997. I was thrilled to hear his perspective. Having spent nearly a decade by then immersed in concern for the natural environment while also a business practitioner, I was excited to find a faculty member in management whose grasp on the vital link between those two fields went far, far beyond my own thinking! I am quite sure Tom does not remember me, as I never had an opportunity to get to know him well; but I am leaving this message because I want to be sure he knows that his impact extends far beyond just those whom he worked with at Michigan.

    Reading now about all Tom has done with CEMP gives me confidence, as we have recently begun a Managing for Sustainability program for undergraduates at my University. Being the smallest program in our School of Management has challenges, but I have high hopes that our enrollments will increase as word about our innovative curriculum spreads. Thank you, Tom, for continuing to inspire me! I look forward to learning about what you do in “retirement,” as I am certain you will continue to find ways of driving us all to find the best within ourselves for the benefit of our planet and all who reside here.

  16. Pratima (Tima) Bansal says:

    I met Tom during my doctoral program at Oxford in the early 1990s. His impact on me was profound and almost certainly shaped who I am now. He taught me to care passionately about my work and its message, even if it’s not immediately popular. He taught me to engage in good quality work, even if it’s hard and takes a long time. And, he taught me about sustainability, and it’s true meaning (his 1995 AMR piece with Kennelly and Krause). I feel truly lucky to be imprinted by Tom. He has earned his retirement, but his ideas will endure.

  17. Ryan Waddington says:

    Tom came to Michigan at a critical time. CEMP was not on a solid footing and it’s future was in doubt. As one of the “handful” of students there at the time, I can attest to the high level of uncertainty that existed. Tom was the perfect person and personality to not only stabilize the program, but to lead it down a new and prosperous path. There could have been a different outcome; one that wouldn’t have yielded 500+ leaders of sustainability and immeasurable positive impact on our world. More than anyone else, Tom ensured a future for CEMP/Erb. And for that, I and hundreds of other Erb’ers are forever grateful. Thank you, Tom!


  18. Mark Tholke says:

    Tom Gladwin has formed a permanent mark on myself and so many other students that went through the CEMP/Erb programs. His wonderful sense of humor, combined with a terribly worrisome evaluation of what might come to pass for certain segments of the world population, make for a one-of-a-kind powerhouse of a personality.

    Tom was tough in the beginning but warmed up over time (though that was temporarily suspended when I almost burnt down the barn by putting too much wood in the fireplace!). His criticisms and positive comments matter because I respect his opinion.

    Tom, I wish you all the best in retirement. You have a left a great legacy with all the CEMP/Erb students that are out there trying to make an impact.


  19. Dr. Gladwin was one of the first faculty I interviewed after setting up the Aspen Instute Biz+Society Program. He was teaching at Stern and told me he leaves 3 seats vacant at every seminar table – one for a fish, one for a poor person, and one for a “baby” (future generations) – bringing complexity and systems thinking right into the seminar room. Tom, reading this piece I am reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Nightly Prayer: “…forbid us to be satisfied with what we make of life. Draw us from base content and set our eyes on far off goals. Keep us at tasks too hard for us…make us sure of the good we cannot see and of the hidden good in the world… Congratulations to one of our most stellar Faculty Pioneers. You makes us proud! Judy Samuelson

  20. Ted London says:


    It has been a pleasure having you as colleague at Michigan over the 9 years that I have been in Ann Arbor. I always enjoyed the opportunity to chat and catch up whenever we bumped into one another in the hallways.

    You have made great contributions to the field of sustainability and to the Erb Institute. These will be long remembered.

    I wish you the very best in the next steps of your journey.


  21. Tom has left an indelible impact on my thinking and my career. I can remember vividly the early 1990s when many of us young doctoral students would clamor to hear Tom say things that we never thought a business school professor would say. He impacted me, and many others, with his counter-cultural thoughts and words. One paper in particular — The Meaning of Greening, a Plea for Organizational Theory — became a central motivator for my work. Thank you Tom