Social Innovation in Higher Education: The Emergence and Evolution of Social Impact Centers
Contemporary social issues, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change, exceed the capacity of a single sector to solve and require the collaboration of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. In this context, universities play a unique and increasingly comprehensive role in educating students, generating new knowledge, and advancing the social and economic conditions in their communities. Over the past decade, explosive growth has occurred in social entrepreneurship and social innovation initiatives on university and college campuses. Whether offered through a center, initiative, or program, a groundswell of curricular, co-curricular, and convening activities has emerged that educates and engages students, faculty, and a range of stakeholders in the pursuit of solving pressing social issues in innovative ways. Using qualitative research methodology and a grounded theory approach, the purpose of this study was to explore the broad phenomenon of and the proliferation of university-based social impact centers in the United States. Through the perspectives and lived experiences of 43 social impact leaders, from multiple higher education institutions, this study developed a grounded theory model which explains the forces driving the emergence and evolution of the university-based social impact centers. The phenomenon can be explained by these “windows of opportunity” where internal, external, and cultural forces intersect, interact, and overlap with one another, within institutional-specific contexts, to produce new centers. While each institution boasts a unique culture and contextual characteristics, the data demonstrated that mission-driven students, market pressures on higher education institutions, and donor support were the most significant forces driving the expansion of social innovation on college campuses. Akin to the double-bottom line, it was both mission and markets that catalyzed the university-based social impact phenomenon. While the social impact phenomenon initially evolved out of elite graduate business schools, it has expanded cross-campus into public policy schools and central administrative units, and across all institutional types. Social impact education now expands across and down the curriculum and co-curriculum. Some universities now even have multiple social impact initiatives within their own institutions. Participants described the need to differentiate themselves and to compete for resources, students, and attention given the plethora of existing civic and socially-oriented programs on their campuses. This study filled a distinct gap in the literature by studying university-based social impact centers, framed in the broader historical context of the evolutionary role of university engagement in their communities, coupled with the recognition of the realities of contemporary market pressures on higher education institutions. Social impact centers exhibit the intersectionality of a host of issues plaguing higher education, such as resource constraints, access, academic silos, specialization, and bureaucracy versus innovation. Finally, social impact centers are a microcosm of the tension that exists between the marketization of higher education and the pressure to hold true to public purposes—and ultimately, whether or not institutions can effectively mediate those two pressures.
Entrepreneurship|Higher Education Administration|Higher education
McBeth, Courtney Hills, "Social Innovation in Higher Education: The Emergence and Evolution of Social Impact Centers" (2018). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10829090.