"Three Ways Universities Can Meet Their Mission" in Forbes

August 1, 2013

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. 

Click here to read the article.


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. 

q: If asked, I’m sure lots of students will say that they would like to do something with social impact - but are hesitant to do so because of the perceived (but false) dichotomy of pursuing a project without guaranteed returns vs. the safer route (good grades and stuff). Are fellowships like Starr the only way to convince students to take the leap (and subsequently realize that it’s not as dichotomous)? Or are there other incentives a college can set up?

a: If you get that response, I’d say you’re asking students the wrong question. The right one is: what are you passionate about doing? Getting good grades can and should matter in certain careers. However, the idea behind a liberal arts education (made plain and simple) is that you’ll get more out of doing what you like. Taking that first step to figure out what drives you doesn’t always require huge risks or personal sacrifices; it can mean joining the work of others and finding the places where social impact is embedded on campus. (Visit brown.edu/socialinnovation and click on “Campus Initiatives & Courses” to learn about the work of groups like Design for America, Better World by Design, and SEEED at Brown.) Students need to find their own definitions of doing well and doing good; either on their own or with guidance from educators. One good resource is Echoing Green’s book Work on Purpose, which provides inspiration and guidance to young people searching for a meaningful career, as well as curriculum and training for educators to prepare emerging professionals to take this journey (more info at echoinggreen.org/work-on-purpose).

q: This model has obviously been successful at Brown, a school that has invested significant resources into the initiative, and has a relatively small student population compared to large state schools. Is this kind of innovation possible at state schools with 20K+ students and decreasing public funding? If so, what would it look like? 

a: You’ve raised an important point, which is that academic programs focused on social innovation (or entrepreneurship, or changemaking, or whatever you choose to call it) are underrepresented at public universities. I believe it really comes down to priorities of the leadership and the decision to embed social impact into the DNA of a university. Arizona State University President Michael Crow, for example, articulated a bold vision of what the new American research university should look like, centered around eight design aspirations including: “Transform Society: catalyzes social change by being connected to social needs” and “Value Entrepreneurship: ASU uses its knowledge and encourages innovation (you can see the other six at newamericanuniversity.asu.edu). At the same time, ASU launched Changemaker Central, a student-run co-working space for social innovators on all four campuses. Their commitment to social innovation is only one story out of 22 Changemaker Campuses now supported by Ashoka U, including Brown (full list at ashokau.org/changemaker-campus). We still have a lot more to do in ensuring these opportunities reach all students, but Ashoka U is already taking the lead in addressing that discrepancy by holding up models of excellence that inspire others.