Infusing ethics and social impact into today’s business school – Leeds School of Business

Dr. Donna Sockell, Executive Director of CESR, introduces an executive speaker in a unique course she created called, Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage.
Dr. Donna Sockell, Executive Director of CESR, introduces an executive speaker in a unique course she created called, Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage.

Business schools around the world have been exploring a variety of ways to infuse ethics and social impact into their curricula and train their students to be responsible leaders. At Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado – Boulder in the US, this is manifested through the creation of their Center for Education on Social Responsibility (CESR), which not only provides a wide range of courses and events, but also looks at how to apply these lessons throughout the curriculum. I recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Donna Sockell, Executive Director of CESR about the work of the center.

1. What is the Center for Education on Social Responsibility and why was it created?

CESR was developed almost exclusively as a curriculum initiative to help develop the socially conscious, values-driven leaders of tomorrow with passionate support from the donors of our school, the Leeds family. The Center is devoted to helping all our students develop an inward understanding of what motivates them, who they are as people (values), the type of business leaders they seek to become, the existing businesses that match their values, and those they will seek to build. Equally important as this self-discovery process is its social context; we want our students to be socially conscious–and recognise that their decisions ripple through the lives of others directly and indirectly. Our Center reaches over three thousand students a year through required and elective courses, not including non-CESR courses that are infused with discussions of values, ethics, sustainability, and CSR. We also have extensive extracurricular activities, such as our recent 16-event Stampede, that support in-class learning. The CESR Stampede is a week of driving values in business through class visits, panels, speakers, a case competition and project showcase, and an annual Conscious Capitalism Conference.

2. Why do you believe it is important to teach students about social responsibility?

Every decision made – especially in a business context – has a social responsibility or an ethical component. Continuing to act without regard to the full consequences of our decisions is detrimental to the fabric of our society, And each of us has the responsibility to think critically about our obligations to others. As educators, we have a moral imperative to train future leaders to understand, embrace, and then act on these responsibilities. If we help to foster a world of people who think critically about their responsibilities to others, the possibilities for great things are endless. When we fail to do so, we experience dire consequences such as the recent tragedy in Bangladesh, collapsing world economies, and so forth on grand scales, as well as many less known injustices on smaller scales.

3. How do you teach social responsibility to students?

There are two key tasks in “teaching” CSR, which we prefer to call “learning facilitation.” The first is to get our students to recognise the impact of their actions, followed by training them to ask the right questions. Our role is to help them develop individualised approaches to answering these questions. We have discovered that discussions, exercises, and action learning – environments with the highest level of student engagement – are the most effective approaches. Support from business professionals, using timely issues, and placing them in real life situations with a toolbox of approaches creates self-discovery and enduring learning. In this sense, we are catalysts.

The second task is to reinforce their education throughout their studies so they habituate critical thinking that they will employ in their careers. Our education is, in a sense, “scaffolded” both vertically – from the very first semester until the last – and horizontally, as our students learn that these issues are significant in all functional areas.

4.     What have been some of your challenges? Your successes?

Many academics in traditional business disciplines were resistant to having the Leeds School focus specifically on values, ethics, and CSR, claiming that these issues were not mainstream and therefore worthy only of minimal class time and resources. However, involvement of a broad range of faculty and administrators in this educational effort is critical to its success. It has taken time, patience, convincing, incentives, cross pollination, and collaborative experiences to melt this resistance since the initiative was founded in January 2007, but it has happened. The school and the students are better for it!

There is no better measure of success of CESR than impact on students. We have countless stories from our alumni on how the CESR emphasis affected not only their choice of jobs but how they behave at work. Because of the limitations of anecdotal evidence, however, we recently conducted a survey of alumni who took at least two CESR elective classes. They said these courses increased awareness of ethical issues at work (77%), made them more confident in dealing with ethical issues at work (72%), influenced their career behavior (72%), and helped them identify business cultures that matched their values (63%). Though we recognise the selectivity bias of this sample, these results are heartening.

5.     What advice do you have for other schools looking to embed social responsibility into the curriculum or put in place a similar Center?

It always is best to start with funds, since organisations are more likely to be responsive to imperatives that carry funding with them. The key is to break down the resistance of traditional disciplines to integrate issues of values, ethics, and CSR into the classroom. The “cause” must be championed by at least one passionate person who can build relationships with a small group of department faculty liaisons. In the early stages, opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination must be seized. This includes the preparation of materials that discipline-based faculty can use in their classes, providing training for interested faculty, offering and delivering guest lectures, collaborating on speakers and workshops, and, ultimately, cross-teaching, cross-developing and cross-listing classes.

On the course development side, it is important to dedicate at least one class to values, CSR, ethics, and sustainability to set the framework for how students will view these issues throughout their education. Then it becomes critical to increase the developmental collaboration in course design and delivery.

Finally, there needs to be a structure that oversees course offerings, quality control, collaboration, and so forth, whether that is a Center, a department, or another body that codifies the school’s commitment to education in this area and ensures that it continues and grows. Issues of internal and external legitimacy are key.

6.     What is next for the Center?

CESR has been participating in the revision of our required core curriculum and the school’s new business minor, and we will be heavily involved in designing and implementing those new programs. We will continue to develop and offer cutting edge electives in collaboration with division-based faculty. We will also redouble our outreach efforts and continue with our CESR Stampede next year.

Because we want to share our learnings about mounting a Center and infusing CSR into the fabric of our school, we started a Curriculum Think Tank, consisting of approximately 15 schools with which we have met and speak regularly via conference calls. The number of participant schools has been growing regularly.


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