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Undergraduate students at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business use a lot of paper.

In several of their classes, business students are required to print out lecture slides, practice problems and notes if they want to use them in class. The Michigan Daily obtained a copy of the lecture slides business juniors have been asked to print out for their core classes thus far this semester, which are released before the start of each class. If the average number of pages per week stays relatively stable, The Daily estimates that by the end of the term the more than 400 students in the third-year BBA cohort will have printed out more than 258,075 pages — the equivalent of 25.8 trees.

Business juniors follow a standard curriculum known as the Ross Integrative Semester (RIS) during which all students take the same four core classes: BCOM 350 (Communication Strategies), BL 300 (Business Law & Ethics), MO 300 (Behavioral Theory in Management) and TO 313 (Operations Management) Every student in the RIS program is given the same set of syllabi and lessons and is advised to print out the same lecture materials.

Business junior Caroline Millen said the number of slides depends on the class. In Business Law and Ethics, she estimates she prints an average of 10 pages per class. In Behavioral Theory in Management, 15 pages, and in Operations Management, 10 pages. Each of these classes meets twice a week.  

As of the winter 2022 semester, this year’s junior class in the Business School has an enrollment of 465 students. Based on the average number of pages per week, if every business student in the junior class prints lecture slides on double-sided pages for every class, the class will use 17,205 pages every week.

Still, students say the school constantly impresses upon them the importance of being environmentally conscious in the academic and business worlds. Millen told The Daily she has been learning about sustainability since the day she started at the Business School two years ago.

Millen is an undergraduate fellow at the Erb Institute — a program that combines Program in the Environment (PitE) classes with business courses offered at the Business School to create a unique curriculum focused on the sustainability of businesses. While her PitE professors talk about the importance of protecting the environment, Millen said, she also often hears about sustainability in her business lectures.

“I’m very passionate about (environmentalism and sustainability),” Millen said. “I think a lot of us in (the Business School) are, considering (business professors) make such an effort to teach us that in all of our classes.”

According to the Business School spokesperson Bridget Vis, RIS is an active-learning experience for business students, preparing them to navigate complicated business situations. Vis said there are other U-M courses outside of the RIS curriculum that enforce an electronics-free classroom policy as well.

“The Ross Integrative Semester is a signature learning experience with action-based learning opportunities, designed to enhance BBA students’ capacity to analyze complex and pressing business problems using a boundaryless approach,” Vis said. “RIS core courses, like many courses around (the University), have traditionally maintained a largely electronics-free classroom policy to enhance student learning and engagement with their peers and faculty.”

Vis added that the Business School takes pride in its pursuit of sustainability. Vis said the RIS committee discussed whether to keep the electronics policy before the fall 2022 semester, considering sustainability as an important factor in the decision. Ultimately, the committee decided upholding the electronics-free classroom was consistent with RIS goals. 

“While sustainability was an important consideration, the committee agreed that maintaining an electronics-free classroom was the best approach for the RIS learning goals this semester,” Vis said. “In cases where electronics will help student learning, faculty will encourage students to bring an electronic device to that specific class session.”

Millen said a group of business students were concerned about the electronics policy’s negative environmental effects and contacted the Business School administration during the first few weeks of the fall 2022 semester. GroupMe messages obtained by The Daily include a poll asking students if they support an option to use tablets to take notes in class. Of 198 respondents, 195 voted “yes.” In an email response to a student query on the matter obtained by The Daily, Business Law Lecturer Lori Rogala said the RIS committee unanimously agreed to keep the electronics policy, adding that the current policy is the most consistent with the goals of RIS..

“During our discussions, the RIS committee weighed several of the concerns … including pedagogical best practices, classroom equity and an inclusive learning environment,” Rogala said. “Our ultimate determination is that the current policy strikes the best balance of competing goals and allowing widespread electronics usage is not the best vehicle for addressing many of the specific concerns cited.”

The Ross building itself earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification for its sustainable design by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2010, a year after it opened. Jeff T. Blau Hall and Kresge Hall — which are attached to the Ross building and are a part of the business school — earned LEED gold certification in 2017.

LEED certification offers four levels — certified, silver, gold and platinum — and new construction can earn points toward these titles based on the application of a variety of categories. The Ross building earned points in indoor environmental quality, sustainable sites, energy and atmosphere, innovation and design process, materials and resources, and water efficiency. The Kresge and Blau Hall project earned points in each of the prior categories, along with regional priority points, earning them a gold certification.

However, Millen and other students have become concerned by the unsustainable practices they see in their own classrooms.

The RIS syllabus for fall 2022 outlines an electronics policy that strictly prohibits the use of any electronic devices in the classroom for the four core classes. The same policy was in place in RIS classes in fall 2021 as well.

According to Millen, in lieu of digital copies of notes and assignments, professors of the RIS core courses advise students to print lecture presentation slides, as well as problem sets or exercises posted online, and bring them to class. 

Millen said many of her classmates and peers have brought up the issue in classes, asking for a reconsideration of the electronics policy due to the environmental impacts of printing. She said professors typically avoid the question or refuse to negotiate.

“Teachers are really quick to shrug it off and just continue to insist that we print slide decks for their class,” Millen said. “(Professors) reiterate constantly that businesses are the most powerful institutions for change. They always say that, but they’re not really letting us take our own action on that.”

In the first two weeks of the semester, Millen said the MO and TO courses used even more paper for team-building exercises. She said 20 packs of notecards were used in her MO class for a game, and stacks of hundreds of pieces of paper were used in a house-building game in her TO class. 

Millen said RIS policies are particularly frustrating because she and the rest of the business junior class were required to read “Management as a Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society” by Andrew Hoffman, U-M Holcim (US), Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise. Millen said the book emphasizes that sustainability practices begin at the individual level. She expressed frustration that the RIS policies allow very little room for sustainable choices. 

“(‘Management as a Calling’) stresses that a key point of systematic change, especially environmentally related, starts at the individual level,” Millen said. “I feel like (the Business School) is really preventing us from doing that with this policy. (The Business School) is even amplifying (the problem) by doing it at an organizational level.” 

Hoffman sat down with The Daily and elaborated on many of the main arguments in “Management as a Calling.” He said the balance between institutional mandates and individual responsibility is a point of tension for progress in sustainability.

“The answers really lie at our institutions,” Hoffman said. “If (someone) is mandated to do things that are contrary to their stated goals of reducing their environmental impact, how do they manage that tension?” 

Hoffman said he was unaware of the electronics policy in the RIS curriculum, adding that he does not agree with the correlated paper waste.

“I wasn’t aware of (the policy),” Hoffman said. “I would have been vocal in resisting it. I would also ask what the students are doing with the paper during the semester. When the semester is done, is all of it going in the garbage? The computer may have some problems in distracting students, but it reduces paper load.”

Compared to business students, LSA sophomore Ally Danly said she’s allowed to use electronics in most of her LSA classes, though there are a few with similar electronic policies to RIS. She said she is never required to print lecture slides or worksheets in advance, adding that she rarely prints during the semester and only uses her printing allowance for documents that are not school-related.

“I print one to three times a month (and) usually it is a resumé and not for class,” Danly said. 

Engineering senior Sean Fernandez said he used to print out lecture slides for class before he purchased a tablet at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester. Because electronics are allowed in all of his engineering classes, he now takes notes directly on the lecture slides with his tablet. Fernandez said in most engineering classes about half of the students take notes on electronics, while the other half print lecture slides to use during class, though it is not required by professors. 

The current junior class in the College of Engineering has almost three times as many students as the current junior class at the Business School. Despite the school having a larger junior class, if every engineering junior used up their printing allotment of 200 double-sided sheets, they would use the equivalent of 25.3 trees for paper — less than the projected 25.8 trees business students will use this fall.

Hoffman said he sympathizes with the struggle of working to achieve sustainability on an organizational level. It can be difficult, he said, for large organizations like the Business School or the University as a whole, to balance the many facets of sustainability that come into play. Overall, he said both individuals and organizations should do their best to hold each other accountable and come together to work towards the common goal of sustainability. 

“One of the challenges with sustainability for many organizations, for corporations, for a university or a school is that sustainability has so many facets, socially and environmentally,” Hoffman said. “We’re all struggling to find a way forward in our personal lives but also in our institutions. Let’s all figure this out together.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Carlin Pendell can be reached at