The frigid temperatures on the Harvard Business School campus in mid-January were a minor inconvenience for the 641 students enrolled in Short Intensive Programs (SIPs), the no-fee, no-credit elective courses now in their fifth year. The 14 classes—the most to date—were in-person this year, with some guests and students joining virtually. We took a closer look at three: the American Dream and the US System of Higher Education, Business Opportunities in the Plant-Based Economy, and the Spiritual Lives of Leaders.

In the American Dream and the US System of Higher Education, Professor Stig Leschly led students through conversations, Q+A sessions, and presentations aimed at inspiring change and innovation in the sector.

The lauded American dream, Leschly posed, rests heavily on the promise of higher education—a supposedly universally accessible and affordable opportunity that has ended up being neither for many students. His opening class asked three framing questions for the week ahead: What problems beset US colleges? What root cause led to those problems? What intervention in practice and policy will improve the sector?

Over four days, students talked with guests across multiple areas of the higher-education landscape, from innovators such as Donnell Butler, founder of Opportunity College, and Father Steve Katsouros, founder of Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago, and Mallory Dwinal-Palisch (MBA 2015), chancellor of Reach University; to former college presidents Debora Spar (formerly of Barnard College and currently senior associate dean for business and global society at HBS) and Larry Summers (Harvard); to leaders in the ed-tech and venture fields such as Ryan Craig of Achieve Partners and Garrett Lord of Handshake.

“I came to HBS with an interest in the US higher education system and some knowledge of the obstacles and opportunities for change based on having worked with K-12 schools,” said Amara Warren (MBA 2023). “This SIP helped me narrow my focus and made me even more committed to working with higher education institutions in some way after my MBA. The SIP format provided a powerful forum for discussion and debate with many leaders in higher education. It also provided me with enormous personal and professional clarity.”

The course culminated with individual and team presentations of students’ final responses to the organizing questions. In closing, Leschly reflected on the course as a whole, his own thoughts on those organizing questions, and what lies ahead for the higher-ed sector. The transformational change that is currently necessary, he said, must be led by student-first public policy—one that welcomes social entrepreneurs to start innovative nonprofit colleges.

“My hope for the students is that the SIP gave them an intense, week-long opportunity to learn about and try to resolve the big questions facing the US college sector,” said Leschly. “My private, unofficial goal with the SIP, to be honest, is to create a way for more and more HBS students to take a long-term, professional interest in the space since US higher education is in such need of innovation.”

In Opportunities in the Plant-Based Economy, students from HBS joined with guests across the University and beyond for a deep dive into the ethics, products, investments, and environment of the global food supply chain, with an immersive look at the role of plant-based foods.

Professor Max Bazerman, accompanied by Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, entrepreneur and director of the venture firm Natural Order Acquisition Corporation; and Paresh Patel (MBA 2000), co-founder, director, and CEO of Natural Order Acquisition Corporation, facilitated discussions and presentations from more than 20 guests, including entrepreneurs, investors, activists, policy makers, doctors, and industry professionals. Session topics included cultivated meats, the challenges of growing a plant-based business, animal law and entrepreneurship, early and later-stage funding, and the future of the food revolution.

On the first day of class, Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), spoke of the global imperative of finding sustainable alternatives for feeding the planet. He founded the GFI, he said, to answer a single question: How do we feed 10 billion people by 2050 without burning the planet to a crisp?

For Friedrich, finding alternative protein sources is not just a climate change imperative, but essential for social justice. His work with the GFI aims to accelerate the development of alternative proteins through international scientific research and innovation, industry investment, and public policy support—with a “global battle cry” for government funding. Citing a recent IDCC report, he noted that despite agriculture being one third of the human causes of climate change–along with heat-absorbing greenhouse gasses released by fossil fuel combustion and deforestation–it receives less than one percent of attention from the media, funders, governments, and NGOs.

“It was inspiring to see so many entrepreneurs, investors, activists, and students working together to reduce climate change, feed the world’s population, reduce animal suffering, and develop new fascinating products to make our lives better,” said Bazerman.

The Spiritual Lives of Leaders, co-taught by HBS Professors Derek van Bever and Nien-hê Hsieh, John Brown from Harvard Divinity School, and Howard Koh from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, aimed to ignite conversations and an investigation into the deeper motivations of business leaders—the development of their values and sense of purpose, and the role of spirituality and faith in forming their leadership style.

Now in its second year, the course was available to students from across the University, opening engagement in these deeper questions about leadership to a variety of fields.

“How do we find ultimate meaning and purpose in our day-to-day work? How do we address difficult challenges and try to make progress and persevere when day-to-day work can be so difficult?” asked Koh in the introductory video.

“It doesn’t have to be a religious answer, it doesn’t have to be a spiritual answer,” noted Hsieh. “All of us at some level stop and think, put the world aside for a moment, and ask ourselves ‘What does it all mean?’” For some people the answer comes from thinking about spirituality and faith and religion. My hope is that this course will allow people to get at the fundamental questions of why we’re here, what are we doing, and what does it all mean.”

After the first morning’s welcome and introduction, the remaining three days began with an early morning spiritual reflection, followed by four 60- to 75-minute sessions with guests such as E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post, Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, and Harvard University President Larry Bacow.

Sessions included “Leadership as the Courage to Care” with Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller; “Spiritual Philanthropy in Emerging Markets” with Professor Geoffrey Jones in conversation with Nadir and Dr. Rati Godrej, and “How Star Women of Faith Succeed” with Val Mosley, chair of Valmo Ventures; Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeye’s; and MBA Class of 2021’s Monica Rex and Poonam Sacheti.

In the session “Effecting Change from a Low Position: Lessons from the Midwives to Moses,” Pesner and Yolanda Savage-Narva, director of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion for the Union for Reform Judaism, asked students to reflect on the Torah’s tale of Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives who successfully defied the Pharoah’s command to kill Israelite newborn males: How did this story resonate? How have you challenged those in higher roles in your life and career? In small groups and then in a larger classroom discussion, students shared their insights—questioning the role of honesty in defiance, pointing out that it is precisely those in lower societal positions who have historically fought against oppression and created change, and the role of allies in amplifying changemakers.

“Our sense is that this course appeals to students because they are trying to figure out how to integrate their professional and spiritual identities—how to lead integrated lives as leaders,” noted van Bever. “And exploring this aspect of leadership with peers from across the University led them to consider questions that would not typically be asked in their corner of campus, and to hear answers they would not otherwise hear.”

This article was originally published by the HBS Newsroom.