Business school legitimacy and the challenge of sustainability: a fuzzy set analysis of institutional decoupling

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Following the financial crisis and faced with mounting institutional pressure, business schools face the twin challenge of rebuilding their reputation and redefining their societal role, by engaging with global challenges such as the sustainability imperative. However, there are some suggestions that business schools simply signal a commitment to the issue of sustainability as a means to rebuild legitimacy, rather than operationally engage with it. We analyse two research questions, what are the operational and strategic characteristics that combine to mean that business schools tightly couple, rather than decouple their espoused sustainability commitments from their actual practice? And, how does a business school’s prestige contribute to a tightly coupled versus a decoupled outcome, in conjunction with organizational characteristics such as visibility, expertise and resources? Drawing on fs/QCA analysis of deans of 40 UK business schools, we find evidence to suggest that business schools that are less prestigious, larger and have more financially resources decouple their espoused sustainability commitment, while business schools that are smaller, more prestigious but with fewer financial resources tightly couple their sustainability commitments and their actions. These findings shed new light on some of the original theoretical premise of decoupling, and we discuss these implications for practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)703-723
Number of pages20
JournalAcademy of Management, Learning and Education
Issue number4
Early online date28 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

HEFCE funding details:
University of Nottingham
Integrating sustainability into business schools


  • Sustainability
  • Business schools
  • Decoupling
  • Institutional theory
  • Qualitative comparative analysis
  • Fuzzy sets


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