Societal Impact and the Small School
- With constrained resources and limited faculty rosters, small schools must be innovative and intentional about choosing their societal impact agendas.
- The Leon Hess Business School surveyed stakeholders and analyzed its existing initiatives to determine where to concentrate its efforts to do the most good.
- The school plans to become a regional knowledge hub that focuses on issues of concern to local coastal communities.
A powerful new force in education is the idea that universities can create positive societal impact by providing services and programming that foster significant improvements in livelihoods, address social injustice, and drive economic growth.
But for small schools, it can be a challenge to design initiatives with impact. Unlike their nationally recognized counterparts with large endowments and big enrollment numbers, smaller colleges must do more with less. They must be innovative as they design effective programs that align with their educational missions.
At Monmouth University’s Leon Hess Business School (LHBS) in West Long Branch, New Jersey, we faced this challenge as we designed and implemented our societal impact strategy. Monmouth University is a small private institution in a desirable coastal location that has easy access to both New York and Philadelphia. While LHBS is one of the larger units within the university, we only have about 40 full-time faculty spread over four departments.
In many ways, our small size offers distinct advantages. Faculty enjoy close personal contact with students, which allows them to address student needs quickly and build relationships that extend well beyond graduation day. Faculty also maintain deep connections with local businesses and NGOs, and they’re able to leverage those connections when they’re filling seats on our Business Council, organizing panels, searching for internship opportunities, and looking for student mentors.
When we decided to deepen the societal impact of our programs, we began looking for ways to capitalize on those advantages while still delivering on our mission statement: to provide learners with the personalized instruction that will help them “develop knowledge, skills, and critical thinking that prepare them to lead businesses as a force for good.”
First Step: Assessing
To get started, we launched a formal task force in October 2021 to define what the school’s societal impact programming should look like, determine the program’s scope and directions, and design effective reporting mechanisms.
The size and composition of the task force were set deliberately wide: We wanted to involve 20 percent of the school faculty, including at least one member from each area or department. The advantages of including many faculty with diverse views far outweighed the challenges of coordinating the working schedules of 10 busy professors and administrators. The task force met on a monthly basis and sustained engagement with the broader LHBS community by speaking at school meetings and posting briefs on the school website.
Early in the year, the task force conducted a schoolwide survey to assess the current state of societal impact matters at LHBS. The inventory revealed a wide array of existing initiatives that had been started long before the societal impact agenda was introduced and were expected to continue in the future. They spanned economic, social, and environmental aspects of school performance.
The advantages of including many faculty with diverse views far outweighed the challenges of coordinating the working schedules of 10 busy professors.
In addition, the task force conducted informal interviews with faculty, students, and local entrepreneurs to solicit their opinions about what societal impact at LHBS should include. This proved to be an effective tool for establishing the baseline for our societal impact strategy, provide a focus for future developments, and reveal potential concerns. For instance, some faculty raised questions regarding academic freedom: They wanted to know to what extent the new strategy would be prescriptive, and they wondered if selective funds allocations would limit faculty choices regarding societal impact initiatives.
The task force gathered more information by engaging with the school administration, the Business Council, and school donors. Members participated in informational exchanges with the Strategic Planning Committee and the Assurance of Learning Committee to ensure that societal impact initiatives were coordinated across the school and that they informed both scholarship and curriculum development. In addition, to learn the best practices in the field, task force members attended AACSB seminars on the topic and reached out to other schools implementing societal impact agendas.
These concerted efforts led to a schoolwide consensus that the LHBS must embed the concept of business as a force for good within its culture and curriculum. A second conclusion was that the school could best ensure positive change and advance community development by becoming a regional hub of knowledge-sharing and development. Going forward, the school would focus its societal impact strategy on improving the socioeconomic well-being of the community and promoting responsible business practices locally, regionally, and beyond.
Second Step: Setting an Agenda
The question was, how could our small school make a major impact? Because we have a smaller student body, we have fewer student organizations, and their membership numbers are necessarily lower than organizations at larger universities. Because we have a smaller faculty team, time is a scarce resource for our professors involved in teaching, service, and research activities. Because we don’t want to overburden learners or faculty, we launch fewer initiatives and carefully manage events to ensure attendance and provide high-quality experiences for participants.
We determined that we should concentrate our efforts and resources on a few very important programs that have the potential to make a profound impact on both our students and our local communities. We will do this in two ways.
First, we will continue with our annual series of public lectures by renowned scholars, activists, and entrepreneurs. These are designed to educate students and the general public on the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues occurring locally and globally.
Second, we will organize new activities that target vulnerable population groups. Primarily we will do this by leveraging our existing network of university centers such as the Urban Coast Institute (UCI), the Monmouth University Center of Entrepreneurship (MUCE), and the Kislak Real Estate Institute (KREI). One initiative will be a joint research program among the LHBS, the UCI, and the KREI to study the impact of flooding on local coastal communities. Another will be a MUCE summer competition program that promotes entrepreneurial skills among high school students in economically challenged communities.
The proposed initiatives build on our existing strengths while taking advantage of the resources we can share with other institutions and centers within the university. These initiatives not only provide important societal impact opportunities, but will enhance the academic profile of our faculty, lead to academic publications, expand our multidisciplinary efforts, and open up possibilities for external funding.
It has now been a year since we established our societal impact agenda. In that time, we have learned valuable lessons we can share about how a small school can launch, manage, and measure such an undertaking:
Societal impact is a team game. It is essential to create a societal impact committee that includes people from different organizational units who hold a wide variety of views. It’s also beneficial to include both people who are enthusiastic about societal impact and those who question the value of such efforts. Enthusiasts push the cart and embark on new initiatives with energy. Skeptics keep the process focused, real, and grounded. When the committee engages with the broad community, it’s less likely that the school will overlook critical issues or underestimate opposition when implementing new plans.
Enthusiasts push the cart and embark on new initiatives with energy. Skeptics keep the process focused, real, and grounded.
It’s important to build an institutionwide ecosystem. Bringing together the capabilities, knowledge, and expertise of multiple organizational units creates more value than can be achieved through disparate systems.
Initiatives should align with the school mission. The closer the societal impact agenda is to the school’s ongoing activities, the less disruptive it will be and the more naturally it will merge into the school’s daily life. Before launching an agenda, administrators should survey constituents to identify the school’s strengths. Then they can build initiatives from a strong existing base, which is more economically efficient than building them all from the ground up.
Focus is essential. Because money and manpower are limited at smaller institutions, administrators must concentrate their efforts and not let the agenda grow too broad. Every time something new is proposed, they should ask, “Where does this create impact, for what, and on whom?” They should determine the specific characteristics that truly differentiate their schools and aim to make significant progress in those distinct areas over time.
Designing the proper metrics can be challenging. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Having a tightly focused program can make the task more manageable and help identify optimal metrics relevant for all stakeholder groups.
Both quantitative and qualitative metrics are helpful. Quantitative data—which might track curricular activity, student employability, student club membership, socially oriented scholarship, and the numbers of public lectures and community events—can reveal trends that unfold over time. Qualitative data—such as anecdotal evidence, images, and feedback from event attendees—will tell the story behind the numbers and build the credibility of the program.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Implementing such a comprehensive strategy will be an evolving and fluid process, and there will be much learning by doing. Administrators will need to avoid micromanaging; they will also need to involve professors early on so they do not appear to be forcing top-down initiatives on faculty. And the societal impact team will need to maintain a positive, optimistic attitude as the program continues to evolve.
Small schools that keep these lessons in mind can design their own societal impact agendas that benefit the school, its stakeholders, and the world at large.