Alan Harlam, Director of the Social Innovation Initiative, was published in the Forbes blog today: "Three Ways Universities Can Meet Their Mission: Why We Must Re-Read And Re-Connect To Our Goals."
Alan examines how Brown and other universities can revolutionize changemaking on their campuses by encouraging students to explore their interests from varying perspectives, immerse themselves in new communities, and act on innovative ideas.
On August 1, the Brown University Facebook page featured an "Ask Me Anything" with Alan. His questions and responses are posted below.
q: What have Brown students taught YOU about social entrepreneurship?
a: I’ve coached dozens of students on their ventures since coming to Brown, and something they’ve shown me time and time again is that a rigorous education is the key to a rigorous toolkit for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. A former student started an organization in Africa that tackles the issue of chronic childhood malnutrition through sustainable agricultural practices. She didn’t major in global health, or food systems, or even international development; she studied comparative literature. The point is that it didn’t matter, because she had a dynamic sense of culture and context, in all their complexity, and the desire to be a part of making positive social change in the world. She had and developed the skills she needed; it was just about harnessing that identity as a voracious learner and applying it. Another student was on the track to medical school, when he formed a life-changing friendship with a child suffering from cancer and decided to reframe his education around a new goal: an organization that builds relationships between young cancer patients and professional athletes. He studied applied mathematics and biology, while taking courses in entrepreneurship and child development. In other words, he found the key to unlocking his purpose (for now) both through and beyond his coursework. It’s something Brown students know how to do very well thanks to our open curriculum and culture of social responsibility, they just need the proper outlets and preparation.
q: I love the idea stated in the article that "we need students who can integrate the knowledge and methods of specific fields – whether anthropology, economics, or biochemistry – into a toolkit for problem solving that will be adapted and applied across disciplines and settings" But, my question for you is how do we do that within a university system that only seems to reward very narrowly focused academic research and teaching? As an economist I understand fully what you are saying, but at the same time, universities (and especially business schools) seem to shun the idea of across disciplinary approaches... how do we change this?
a: Thanks Michael. I agree with you; social innovation doesn’t deal with simple problems that fall into the traditional divisions of academic disciplines. At the same time (like I mention in the article), we’ve seen how the mission statements of many colleges and universities contain an explicit call to action: to unlock human potential to serve communities. So the question becomes, how do we reimagine the role of the university and who is involved in answering that call? Here at Brown, we’re about to pilot a new research and teaching model called TRI-Lab, in which the experiences and expertise of students, faculty, and community practitioners are equally valued and mobilized to address social issues (more on that at brown.edu/go/tri-lab). While universities are complex ecosystems that can be challenging to maneuver, we should continue to take small steps that bring us closer, over time, to the fulfillment of our missions.