University social responsibility and the SDGs

The International USR Summit 2022, a biennial flagship event of the University Social Responsibility Network (USR Network), is being hosted virtually on 16-18 November by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The summit brings together higher education leaders, academics, students and practitioners from all continents to exchange ideas and foster partnerships among universities and to advance the global USR movement – to share insights in advancing university social responsibility, generating social impact and driving sustainable development around the world.

Here University World News interviews Professor Robert Hollister, senior adviser to the USR Network, about what university social responsibility means, its relationship to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how it can be driven forward, and what will be discussed at the summit.

UWN: Some key issues to do with universities’ social responsibility work will be discussed at your upcoming summit. What caught my eye were the questions of how you can drive institutional change and how you can assess and reinforce universities’ social responsibility impact. Could you tell us more about those issues?

RH: It was interesting reading your interview with Pam Fredman, president of the International Association of Universities (IAU), in University World News last week, where she spoke about the importance of universities developing both knowledge and competence in terms of the societal contributions of higher education institutions, and advocacy of educating graduates to become more transformative leaders.

My own view is that on educational outcomes I continue to worry that that is not getting enough attention. We all say that is what we are doing, but it is really not that hard to define and assess learning outcomes.

And it is striking in the work of various groups I am involved with that there is an unexplored opportunity to get more serious about defining what we mean by educating our graduates in all fields in active citizenship to become not only highly competent engineers and economists, but also civic engineers, civic economists and to make that a greater focus of accountability.

The primary opportunities of universities have to do with our research and our educational programmes, but it continues to be notable that our corporate policies and practices are getting some attention yet there remain many untapped opportunities to extend that dimension of university social responsibility.

If you look at the universities that are doing especially creative work around social responsibility, they are socially engaged in their SDGs-oriented research and education, as University World News has been reporting. Institutions are major employers and they design and maintain buildings that are more or less energy efficient and they manage their moneys in different ways.

Within the University Social Responsibility Network, some of our members are extraordinary in their more encompassing view of universities’ social responsibility. I continue to admire what the University of Manchester is doing with that more expansive orientation, which includes institutional policies and practices.

UWN: You previously headed up the Talloires Network where you were acutely involved in engagement with universities. Tell us more about that.

RH: I am retired now, but still part of Tufts University, based in Boston, blissfully emeritus, but my immediate focus is my role as senior adviser to the USR Network.

UWN: What does social responsibility mean? How is it different from IAU calling for transforming society? Others are calling for the SDGs to be used as a framework. Talloires Network focuses on civic engagement. What is different?

RH: University social responsibility, I believe, is about a commitment to maximising the positive societal impact of the entire range of university functions and if you compare the missions and activities of the expanding array of regional, national and global networks that have a strong focus on universities’ social impact, there is just a huge amount of overlap.

Their conceptual vocabs vary, but if you look closely at what they do, it is very similar. Certainly, in the United States context, civic and community engagement is an overarching concept that resonates, but in other continents social responsibility is the headline banner they march under.

Within that, the elements of mission and activities that are important are the primary core functions of institutions of higher education, that is, educational programming and research, but also corporate policies and practices.

UWN: Is university social responsibility more corporate than say the IAU’s stress on transforming society or the Talloires Network’s focus on engaging with communities?

RH: What is most impressive to me is the large overlap in the missions and activities of the growing number of networks devoted to social responsibility. But the United Kingdom governmental agencies are far more serious about expecting and assessing societal impacts of research, although in different dimensions of the US research apparatus more of that is happening.

As a lifelong academic, whose work is increasingly international, it is astonishing how powerfully universal the academic culture is. Of course, the context matters, but it is striking the extent to which universities in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Canada and Asia are so similar in their organisational structure and operations.

The part that does vary a lot, the moving target, is the policies of national government agencies, with the national government in mainland China, for instance, being very determinative, while in the US the national government is much less so and the patterns of influence are much more decentralised.

UWN: So what does the USR Network do?

RH: The USR Network was created by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which has done a marvellous job. Our overarching goal is twofold – to elevate the social responsibility policies and programmes of our member institutions, and to accelerate, expand and strengthen the global university social responsibility movement.

And you do that by fostering debate and exchange, passing on best practices and learning from sister institutions about what works and what doesn’t. And we concentrate on a set of joint projects.

To me a key strength of the USR Network is that we are intentionally modest in size, with 20 members at present. We are geographically diverse but with a distinctive representation of institutions in China and other parts of Asia, and we have a commitment to collaborating on a handful of joint projects, one of which is the upcoming biennial global conference.

One key piece of work is capacity-building online, web-based exchange of information and experience. At present the University of Manchester is taking the lead in production of an online course on how to dramatically elevate university efforts to address the SDGs.

A second piece that has been really exciting, again taking place every two years, member institutions host executive development workshops which are in-person, with site visits that focus on the special strengths of the host institution.

Those have been conducted over time by Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Kazakhstan, the University of São Paulo in Brazil, the University of Pretoria in South Africa and the University of Manchester, UK.

Then there are a number of student exchange programmes, and a social entrepreneurship boot camp for students, combined with seed grants for their community. They work particularly around climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The identity of the winning teams illustrates the USR Network’s geographic diversity and distinctive leadership in Asia – Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Yonsei University in South Korea.

Another distinctive aspect is capacity-building for faculty around applied research. There is extraordinary work being done across an entire range of disciplines. Decades ago, university social responsibility was primarily about work in the applied social sciences. Now it is equally about the work of chemists, nutritionists, professors of medicine and people in the arts and humanities.

In terms of scale and impact, it is hugely important and exciting to see that trend happening in all parts of the world.

What constitutes competence for today’s civil engineers: quality professional work? To keep front and centre the scientific, technical quality measures but then layer into that the values and skills of community leadership and of transformative leadership.

There are plenty of examples from around the world in technical fields, but we also have examples of the power of public art to move people and to help people in zones of conflict, for instance, the work of Professor of Applied and Social Theatre James Thompson at the University of Manchester, who is also former vice president for social responsibility.

And the University of Chicago has an extraordinary civic engagement programme that involves the drama faculty engaging with the community, using theatre skills and concepts to help local non-profit leaders rethink and strengthen their leadership skills.

UWN: So tell me more about your conference, your summit? How is it different from others?

RH: It’s an action-oriented global forum – for exchange about what works (and doesn’t) in university social responsibility and for advancing next-stage partnerships.

The summit is being planned in close cooperation with three sponsoring organisations – Aurora, the Open Society University Network and the University Alliance of the Silk Road. As the university social responsibility global movement continues to expand, regional and international networks play a key role in elevating exchange and joint action.

In the balkanized world of higher education, these international networks are placing a great emphasis on societal impacts – educating students in all fields to be transformative leaders and accelerating the creation of new knowledge to save the planet.

The Open Society University Network and Aurora are relatively new coalitions that illustrate the vibrancy and potential of the global social responsibility movement.

What constitutes university social responsibility and civic engagement when university personnel are being killed and institutions shut down or destroyed in conflict? The Open Society University Network is just extraordinary in the support it is providing to universities and university personnel who are under such direct attack, and it is fostering collaborations and diaspora arrangements with institutions in safer parts of the world.

Aurora is a consortium of nine research-intensive European universities committed to strengthening the societal impact of their core activities and matching academic excellence with societal relevance.

Also, the USR Summit is being organised in conjunction with the International Conference on Service-Learning. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which created the University Social Responsibility Network nearly 10 years ago as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations, has a special strength in service-learning and has become a major resource for other universities trying to get into this area.

The global service-learning movement is moving into a whole new stage of institutional commitment and societal impact and our linked conferences provide a significant opportunity to elevate service-learning as a central dimension of university curricula.

UWN: What will the conference focus on?

RH: The overall theme is ‘Education and action for a sustainable future’. One of the subthemes is ‘assessing impacts’ and what drives the institutional change needed to do social responsibility work better. There is also a focus on elevating sustainable development through regional and global collaboration.

The wider purpose is our commitment to growing this global movement and the primary way to do that is to work closely with other groups and associations.

Regarding what drives institutional change, if you look at universities that are most aggressive and creative in their social responsibility work, they almost all have a couple of things going on.

One is the creation of a senior administrative leadership position – a vice provost or an executive vice president or a director – who has this portfolio, and it is university wide. And that is case with Simon Fraser University in Canada, the University of Manchester in the UK or the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

But then the other interesting piece is looking at the skillset and the strategic orientation of the university vice-chancellors or rectors or presidents of universities. They have complicated jobs, with all kinds of cross pressures, but how much of their time are they spending on the topics we have been talking about and how to elevate that dimension of the performance of their institutions. What are they doing in order to pull it off?

UWN: How important are the SDGs as a framework for university social responsibility activities?

RH: The SDGS have become a near universal framework for university social responsibility and civic engagement work and that facilitates productive exchange and collaboration. It also facilitates assessment of impacts.

We were pleasantly surprised when after agitating with folks from the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings to incorporate some measures of social responsibility into their rankings, they developed the THE Impact Rankings and have been responsive to critical questions about what to measure and how to implement the rankings.

Some colleagues are critical of THE but I think the Impact Rankings is a huge deal. We compare ourselves competitively to other institutions all the time. The only question is whether we do it based on good data or not.

But I also agree with Pam Fredman that qualitative assessment is fundamental, extra important. I think we have an opportunity to do a far better job at assessing and communicating the quality and the impact of our work in terms that are respectful to the interests of communities outside the academic culture.

This article is part of a series of articles on the International USR Summit 2022, to be held from 16-18 November on the theme ‘Education and Action for a Sustainable Future’, which is being hosted virtually by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. You can register here. The series is supported by the University Social Responsibility Network, but University World News is solely responsible for the content.