Societal Impact at the Core

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Monday, December 12, 2022
By Uma Gupta
Photo by iStock/leolintang
Embracing societal impact presents challenges. Even so, we must do whatever it takes to train our students to be the change agents the world needs.
  • While many business schools have made societal impact a focus of their missions, five challenges could prevent them from turning this focus into meaningful action.
  • The impact of values-driven initiatives is not easy to measure, but schools can track their progress through metrics such as the number of research projects that faculty undertake to address problems in the community.
  • To prepare students and faculty to be change agents, schools can regularly ask them a simple question: “What have you done to create societal impact?”


Society has explicit and implicit expectations of businesses. We expect businesses not only to create meaningful products and services, but also to embrace and embody universal values such as service, sustainability, social justice, equality, and fairness. We ask organizations to be not just profit-generating systems, but vehicles of societal impact.

To meet these expectations, students in the talent pipeline must be trained and prepared to help organizations deliver significant positive social change. This means that it is imperative that business schools make societal impact central to their missions, embedding it in their research, curriculum, and experiential learning opportunities.

In Guiding Principle No. 2 of its 2020 business accreditation standards, AACSB states that “business education is a force for good” and that “all accredited schools are expected to make a positive contribution to society.” Neither of these statements is a new theme or focus. Rather, each one emphasizes the original mission and general purpose of education—to do societal good.

Societal impact as a core value is easy to embrace for all stakeholders in business education, who include administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, students, donors, and board members. Although the language used to describe approaches to impact may vary at different institutions, the missions of all business schools can coalesce around one overarching theme: to prepare students to make the world a better place. 

However, business schools face five central challenges when it comes to translating the value of societal impact into tangible action. Below, I share ideas to help business schools overcome these challenges and make societal impact the center of all they do.

Challenge No. 1: Countering “here we go again!” attitudes.

This might be the first reaction of some faculty members when they hear that their business schools want to adopt yet another initiative that emphasizes societal impact. Many might ask, “Is this just a fad?” But societal impact is not a fad. It is here to stay, largely because forces now demand that all business entities deliver on universal human values.

Business schools can simply point to trends in business itself. For example, on August 19, 2019, the CEOs of more than 190 companies of the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation. The editorial board of The Christian Science Monitor stated, in its commentary on the Business Roundtable’s announcement, that “instead of corporations being merely value-driven—as in the legal obligation for financial returns to investors—they must also be values-driven, for example in being accountable for their actions to a wider range of interests.”

In other words, business leaders are realigning their missions to focus their companies on societal good.

Schools can deliver the best impact when they engage in deep conversations with community members to identify one or two critical issues that match faculty expertise and student interest.

In keeping up with the changing workforce needs, colleges of business can take several approaches to preparing graduates who know how to drive positive societal impact. For example, schools can support applied faculty research on a range of current social challenges, especially those that align with their missions. They can encourage undergraduate students to pursue research projects on topics such as climate change, healthcare access, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the impact of data overload on decision-making.

Topics such as these are ideal vehicles to prepare students to be impactful agents of change.

Challenge No. 2: Choosing a focus for meaningful impact.

This is probably one of the most difficult tasks confronting business educators. Businesses that reside in every business school’s extended backyard face an extraordinary and emerging set of social issues affecting their success. This makes it far too easy for schools to want to try to address a wide range of issues. But in doing so, schools risk spreading their resources too thin, minimizing their impact overall.

Schools can deliver the best impact when they engage in deep conversations with community members to identify one or two critical issues that match faculty expertise and student interest. By focusing their efforts, institutions can better sustain their social impact, prioritize their resources, and build long-term expertise.

In real-world terms, this means that a business school located in a rural community might choose to emphasize reducing the number of high-school dropouts, creating more pathways to college, and reskilling and retraining the local workforce. An urban school might address problems such as discriminatory practices in venture capital allocations and childcare.

But regardless of circumstances, schools will likely find that they will generate the greatest impact by building close community partnerships and aligning course assignments and projects with local needs.

Challenge No. 3: Updating the curriculum.

Introducing new courses or revamping existing courses takes time and effort, because new offerings must undergo careful review through faculty governance processes. But an easy first step on this journey is to encourage faculty to add one or two modules or assignments to their existing courses, in which they teach students how to become change agents in their chosen disciplines.

For example, faculty in information science might introduce a module or experiential learning project on the ethics of data selection and data visualization. They can invite guest speakers, assign research papers, initiate classroom discussions, and introduce interdisciplinary course content on such topics. These small steps can make an impact, but do not require a lengthy review process.

Challenge No. 4: Measuring societal impact.

Values-driven initiatives are not easy to measure; they do not lend themselves to quantitative, verifiable metrics. Even so, metrics matter, and schools can integrate methods to track the true impact of societal impact initiatives.

Such metrics can include anything from the number of applied research projects and papers that are relevant to the community to the number of businesses that implement the findings of undergraduate research. Schools also might conduct student exit interviews to explore their graduates’ understanding of how to create societal impact.

We can make our students agents of change who work tirelessly to address social problems, but only if we make societal impact a core value of our institutions.

If the metrics show that a particular effort fails, schools should not react in ways that are punitive or dismissive. Instead, they must find ways to encourage and reward faculty effort and persistence, especially in the early stages of launching societal impact initiatives. They then can use the metrics they gather to focus on lessons learned.

Administrators also can gather more information by conducting five- and ten-year impact assessments. In doing so, schools send a clear message to all stakeholders: Societal impact is not a fad, but a core value of the institution.

Challenge No. 5: Ensuring that graduates are prepared to be change agents.

One effective way to overcome this challenge is to make societal impact the centerpiece of all faculty, administrator, board member, and student evaluations. Schools should regularly ask every member of their communities a simple question: “What have you done to create societal impact?”

Just asking such a question triggers individuals to engage in a chain of thought that might not otherwise occur to them. The question also inspires rich discussions among stakeholders that can be immensely productive, paving the way for creating greater societal impact.

Impact Should Not Be an Afterthought

If we want our business schools to emphasize societal impact, we must undergo a paradigm shift in how we market our programs, target and recruit students, evaluate students and faculty, encourage areas of faculty research, and reward certain behaviors and projects. We must think carefully about the internships and career experiences we provide to students and community partnerships we create.

In other words, we can make our students agents of change—individuals who work tirelessly to identify and address social problems and create innovative solutions—only if we make societal impact a core value of our institutions. Societal impact must never be an afterthought.

Business schools have an extraordinary opportunity to become trustworthy partners to values-driven businesses and vehicles of societal impact in their communities. This is not an easy or simple mission. But like all things worthy, it demands our full attention and commitment.

Uma Gupta
Director of Business Analytics, George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, University of South Carolina Upstate
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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