NYU Stern UC Celebrates 20 Years of the Innovative Social Impact Core Curriculum

Matt Statler Delivers a Lecture to Students in Paulson Auditorium
“Business is a social institution: it’s people’s lives, it’s people’s livelihoods, it’s how we meet our basic human needs and beyond that how we achieve and thrive and succeed in life,” Professor Matt Statler, the Richman Family Director of Business Ethics and Social Impact Programming at NYU Stern, and a driving force behind the social impact curriculum at the Undergraduate College (UC), said in the excited tone he uses when you get him talking about his passion. “Business serves society, and successful corporations are increasingly those who serve society more effectively rather than not.”

This is one of the many reasons why, according to Statler, it’s so critical for students to learn about the interconnections between business and society. So crucial, in fact, that 20 years ago this spring, the NYU Stern Undergraduate College faculty, led by Dean Frederick Choi, undertook a major overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum and introduced the first required social impact courses focused on business ethics and professional responsibility.

“We had to broaden the education,” said C.W. Nichols Professor of Business Ethics and Director of the Business and Society Program Bruce Buchanan, who chaired the faculty committee that pushed this major curriculum change through in 1997, notably before the dotcom crisis and long before the financial crisis of 2008. “Society had expectations that were not being met by business,” he said, and the curriculum changes were designed to address that gap.

In 1998, the UC piloted the Business and its Publics course, and it became required for all first-year students in the spring of 1999. In the subsequent years, the UC rolled out the Organizational Communication and its Societal Context sophomore year course, followed by the Law, Business, and Society, led by Clinical Professor of Business Law and Deputy Director of the Business and Society Program Rachel Kowal, and then Professional Leadership and Responsibility (PRL), the senior capstone course. The class of 2002 was the first to graduate with all four required courses on their transcripts.

The curriculum change was a true innovation at the time, and the faculty and the College made a bold statement by introducing these new requirements. “You’re telling students if you want the Stern degree you have to take these courses,” Buchanan pointed out.

The risk paid off when, in 2011, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, having conducted a field study of business education across the United States, lauded the Social Impact Core and identified PRL as a model of the integration of liberal learning with technical business training in their book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession.

At the time, NYU Stern Undergraduate College was the first undergraduate business school to require four courses related to business ethics and social impact. Today, it is still the only undergraduate business school to have this robust requirement, which is increasingly a draw for prospective students. “It’s really distinctive,” Statler said. “The time and the effort that NYU Stern puts into the social impact part of the education is not matched anywhere else.”

The curriculum continued to evolve over the next two decades, starting when Dean Sally Blount saw the opportunity to bundle the four courses and brand them as the Social Impact Core. Under Dean Blount’s leadership, the UC also received a generous gift from John Paulson, for whom Paulson Auditorium in Tisch Hall is named, which allowed the school to remodel the Upper Concourse level to fit the pedagogical needs of the Social Impact Core in 2010. “That was really major,” Buchanan said. The classrooms on the Upper Concourse level are designed to be small seminar rooms where students sit in a circle. “Simple mechanics matter in these things. And if everyone’s sitting at the table, everyone is included in the conversation.”

Fast-forward to today and the UC continues to be a leader and innovator in the area of social impact education. In fall 2016, the College introduced the Sustainable Business co-concentration for students who want to focus their coursework on social impact. Additionally, Statler continues to design and implement a range of social impact programs in response to increasing levels of student demand.

One of these programs is the Social Impact Fellows, a newly rebranded co-curricular opportunity for students who want to dive more deeply into their social impact curriculum and “develop themselves as future business leaders capable of tackling the global challenges that face human society and leading organizations that not only make money for investors but also steward the environment and create justice for society,” said Statler. It is also designed to “enhance community among students who are particularly passionate about the creation of social and environmental value through business,” he added.

Most recently, the 20th anniversary of the Business and Its Publics Course has brought about some changes for the longstanding staple of the first-year experience. Under the leadership of Dean Geeta Menon, the College conducted a curriculum review  that moved the Social Impact Core into the next phase of excellence by integrating the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations with curriculum that explores global business challenges through the perspective of the global goals. The course has also been re-christened Business and Society, and the structure has been simplified “to create a more coherent and integrated learning experience,” Statler said. “But the intent stays the same,” Buchanan added: “To [help students] develop this appreciation that business is something that is really central to society. If they see it that way, it then becomes clear that business has responsibilities.”

For the students experiencing the Core, it is an educational and professional asset. Once they graduate, “Stern has prepared them with all of the technical skills. In addition to that, they’ve been trained [through the Core] to understand complexity, and we’ve put them in a position to lead business organizations in serving a higher purpose beyond just money making,” said Statler.

And with the socially conscious members of Generation-Z, the lessons of the social impact core resonate more and more. Ally An (BPE ‘21) who just returned from working with refugees in Athens, Greece, on a Social Impact Stipend, has had a positive experience in the Core classes thus far. “Business does not occur in a vacuum, so businesses will always produce externalities, good and bad. It is really important to understand these complexities in order to truly be a responsible and socially conscious businessperson, and, to a greater extent, a citizen of the world,” An said.

Maggie Paruta (BS ‘21), who co-concentrates in Economics and Sustainable Business and whose experience with the SIV:Ghana course has shaped her future career path, added, “[The] Social Impact Core has certainly given me a greater sense of self-awareness and a better understanding of how I can link my work to my personal values.”

When asked to look back over the last 20 years of the Core, Buchanan said he’s most proud of “the number of truly talented and extraordinary people who have, over the years, committed to the project of delivering the Core.” The courses require small class sizes, which means that there are over 50 faculty members teaching in the Social Impact Core each semester. “There has to be someone at the front of the room who is knowledgeable, committed, and passionate about the topic. They’re all volunteers: they all want to do it,” Buchanan said. He notes that the partnership between the Business and Society Program and the Management Communication faculty is a key reason that “the social impact core has thrived for 20 years, and how it is, if anything, strengthening.”

“When we were on this committee back in the ‘90s we had this sort of hopefulness that this would all work out. Frankly, we had no idea if it would,” said Buchanan. Twenty years later, in an ever-changing and increasingly socially conscious world, the program is thriving and continues to innovate as a model of undergraduate business education and a major point of pride for NYU Stern.
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Want to learn more about social impact and sustainability at Stern? Check out these resources:
Business and Society Program
Center for Business and Human Rights
Center for Sustainable Business
Ethical Systems
Social Impact Fellows
Social Impact Stipends
The Call for Corporate Action