Universities and Corporate Social Responsibility: A Competitive Advantage?

Universities are often looked upon to take a leadership role within societies.  They are expected to lead by example whether through advanced research or by extending the bounds of justice on a global scale.  Meanwhile, a societal trend that has been gathering momentum over the past couple of decades or so is the significant role of corporate social responsibility (CSR). 

The growing importance of CSR in the business world is clear.  Is CSR important to educational institutions?  How should an institution such as a university practice CSR?  By a response from universities I do not mean CSR research by faculty members, but rather the way in which a university addresses the concerns of myriad stakeholders with respect to CSR. 

Universities can choose to be followers, or they can seize the opportunity to be leaders and adopt CSR a vital aspect of their competitive advantage.  A recent academic article on CSR suggests that universities can lead in the practices of CSR two ways (REF:  http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/2954/).  First, universities should promote a true culture of CSR throughout their organizations.  Second, universities should develop social marketing actions in order to better communicate and interact with stakeholders.  The development of a vibrant CSR culture will foster the build-up of human and social capital with the organization. 

Universities have an opportunity to lead in an area that most businesses have recognized as important.  Businesses increasingly appreciate the role of CSR and they wish to engage in positive social actions and communicate these accordingly to their stakeholders.  Universities can and should build on a tradition of the past decades of attempting to engage in positive social actions.

The stakeholders of a university include present students, future students and corporate supporters, among many others. 

One large stakeholder group is present students, most in the age range of 18 – 25.  This group is the so-called Gen Y, the Net Generation.  This group is the most tech-savvy within the general population.  They are also among the most interested in understanding the social action of organizations and they have little patience for those who do not do so with transparency and integrity.

The tradition of universities over the past few generations has been to be reactive rather than proactive.  In the 1960s there were legendary student protests, from Berkeley on the west coast to the Columbia University sit-in on the east coast.  Students were demanding change; universities were scrambling to respond.

In the 1980s, student protest often focused on how universities were managing their large endowments.  Were their money managers using their billions to indirectly support the apartheid regime in South Africa?  Students wanted to have an impact; universities were grappling with how to respond.

In today’s era, students still care about how universities are exercising their own CSR, from climate change and recycling to making a difference with respect to global inequities in the world. 

Another group of potential stakeholders are future students.  Prospective students are interested not just in the academic reputation of the university, but also in the character of the institution.  Incoming students are drawn to institutions that reflect a culture of social responsibility.  It makes a difference in terms of selecting a university.

Another important group of university stakeholders are corporate supporters of a university.  These businesses that provide financial and strategic support to a university are increasingly acclimatized to working with CSR concerns.  They will benefit from an alignment of a university strategy that reflects their own concerns.

Universities can meet the expectations of stakeholders by adopting a well-conceived CSR strategy in the same manner as other organizations (as noted in other blogs).  The same principles of strategic management apply to incorporating CSR as part of competitive advantage:  formulation, implementation and evaluation.  Established management tools, such as the Balanced Scorecard, can provide a framework for this process.

A key element of a university is to craft an overall strategy and then determine the various categories to be measured and then develop benchmarking capabilities.  A strategic action plan will enhance the university’s performance potential.  A strategic plan will also embrace transparency and indicate to stakeholders that specific steps are being taken to address social concerns. 

Universities have an opportunity to embrace the concerns of their stakeholders, such as students and business supporters, and to lead in responding in the realm of practising and communicating CSR.  Universities realize that it is a competitive market in terms of creating an ongoing stream of satisfied alumni, attracting new students and addressing the concerns of business supporters—a strategy which incorporates CSR is a start. 

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