Business schools are under increasing pressure from students and companies alike to teach their students how to make a difference in the world. Odd though it may seem in these times of outsized bonuses and super-profits, social impact--not greed--is becoming the prime motivation as business students search for purpose.
Yes, money still matters in picking majors, and many students remain intensely focused on their own profit and loss statements, if only because they accumulate so much debt as they make their way through school. However, many also want the chance to do well by doing good, and carry that hope as they pick courses.
Business schools have mostly responded with a course or two on ethics, social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility. But many schools nestle the courses within traditional majors, giving students the option to learn about social impact but not the requirement to engage. Faculty also remain reticent about ceding too much room on the curriculum to social impact--after all, they get rewarded at least in part by the headcount in their own, traditional classrooms.
However, most business schools are slowly starting to realize that social impact is essential for corporate survival, not to mention sustainable profits. Whether defined as social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service, social impact not only increases the reputational capital that reinforces brand equity and consumer loyalty, it also gives employees an added sense of purpose in their work.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom that young people in general (and business students specifically) only care about extrinsic motivators such as pay, benefits and promotions, survey after survey suggests that they also want the intrinsic benefits that come with efforts to solve seemingly intractable problems such as hunger, disease, pollution and poverty. That can show itself in many ways in a company, whether through time off for volunteering, matching programs for giving, double and triple bottom lines for environmental and social impact, and, most importantly perhaps, a strong pat on the back for civic engagement.
Recruiters now know that, all things being equal on the extrinsic side (such salary and benefits, for example), students will choose a job at a socially responsible corporation over the same job at a socially irresponsible competitor. They will also stay longer in their jobs if they feel like they are contributing to some broader good, and gravitate toward training that acknowledges the need to learn more about the outside world.
Some business schools clearly get it. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management started a Business and Social Environment major in 2001, largely focusing on corporate social responsibility as its backbone, while other schools have introduced required courses on business ethics. Northwestern’s program is likely to get stronger now that Sally Blount has become dean, if only because she was a driving force in creating the social impact program at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
The Stern program appears to be unique in that it’s four-course undergraduate core on social impact is required for graduation. There is no opt-out available. And Stern Business School’s new dean, Peter Henry, is upping the ante by putting real money behind a “micro-grant lab” that gives students the chance to obtain seed funding for triple bottom-line impact in New York City.
Business and public service schools serve specific professions, of course. Required courses for their students are mostly electives for others. NYU’s Catherine B. Reynolds Fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship is starting to knock down the silos. Housed at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, where I teach, it’s supporting a collage of recipients from nearly ever corner of the university, including law, medicine, dentistry, social work, engineering, journalism, the humanities, arts and architecture. It’s a great step, but why not go one step farther and ultimately require social-impact courses in these other schools? Why not require social impact courses for future physicians, nurses, chemists, historians, librarians, filmmakers, musicians and political scientists?
The answer for now is that students can only handle so many requirements during their short time in school. It’s a fair point. But required courses establish the sign posts for students as to what really matters to their ultimate impact in a chosen field. As the old maxim goes, we wouldn’t require certain courses if students would line up on their own. Making social impact part of every student’s curriculum would send the signal that social impact is an essential skill for any destination, while telling students that changing the world is part of a life well lived.
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