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The Evolution of Social Impact Academic Programming at the University of Utah

Dr. Allison Boxer shared her vision for Sorenson Impact Institute’s social impact academic program at the University of Utah and beyond.

 

Training the next generation of impact leaders is a core purpose and north star of the Sorenson Impact Institute, which is part of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. With expanded opportunities to explore the concept of impact, students from every academic discipline — not just business or finance — have an opportunity to gain and apply an impact perspective in their chosen field of study. This opportunity is transformative not just for students but potentially for the world.

“Through our academic offerings, we wanted to create onramps for a vast and diverse array of students who perhaps don’t have much exposure to impact in business, who want to view their field of study through an impact lens, or who seek a foundational understanding of impact principles and how they can be applied to create positive change,” said Dr. Allison Boxer, Managing Director of Impact Academics at Sorenson Impact Institute.

Boxer said the social impact academic program was inspired by a profound belief in the power of both education and business to drive positive change in the world. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative potential of blending business rigor with real-world impact,” she said.

“I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative potential of blending business rigor with real-world impact,” she said.

Boxer’s career in impact was inspired by her academic opportunities and research. As an undergraduate, she studied abroad in Tanzania, focusing on marketing practices across cultures with a capstone project to write a proposal on access to clean water. “During this experience, the lightbulb went off, and I recognized the connection between my sociology/anthropology major and management studies minor. Specifically, that business is a force. Why not use it to create a better world?”

She took this mindset to her MBA studies at Harvard Business School, where she participated in pilot courses developed around social impact in business, including “Reimagining Capitalism.” She also studied “Business at the Base of the Pyramid” and other related topics, fueling her conviction that business and social good are inextricably intertwined and that learning about impact principles in an academic setting can change the course of students’ passions, careers, and lives, as it did hers. She took this conviction about the role of education and educational institutions to the University of Southern California, where she earned a Doctorate of Education. “During my doctoral studies, my research focused on universities’ rising focus on a third mission — teaching, research, and, increasingly, social impact — and how universities can support regional social and economic development through entrepreneurship and innovation.”

 

Learning to Apply an Impact Lens

Leading the development of the Institute’s social impact academic programming with the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the David Eccles School of Business, Boxer encourages students to think differently about the role of business in the world. “The goal is for students to understand that there are different paradigms to approach business. Whether it is impact investing or business strategy, we explore how focusing on long-term value creation, considering the impact of externalities, and optimizing value across multiple stakeholders can be good for business success over the long term,” she said. With this knowledge, students are encouraged to think broadly about what impact they want to create within their chosen career.

Through interdisciplinary coursework, hands-on experiential learning opportunities, and engagement with leading practitioners in the field, the academic programming empowers students to become change agents who can drive meaningful and sustainable social impact. “Whether they pursue careers in impact investing, social entrepreneurship, traditional business, or any other field, our goal is that graduates are equipped to navigate the complexities of social change and contribute positively to society,” said Boxer. “We aim to cultivate a new generation of leaders who are both academically proficient and deeply committed to making a difference in their communities and beyond.”

“We aim to cultivate a new generation of leaders who are both academically proficient and deeply committed to making a difference in their communities and beyond.”

 

Developing a Unique Social Impact Academic Program

With the support of University of Utah President Taylor Randall, Boxer and her team at the Institute partnered with the University’s Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy to develop the social impact academic program. Through this process, the Institute and the University of Utah developed impact programming that fosters collaboration and partnership between academia, industry, government, and civil society.

More broadly, the Institute and the University play a critical role in bringing together diverse stakeholders. In this way, the University can catalyze interdisciplinary research, innovation, and collective action to address complex societal challenges — an essential element of today’s higher education course offerings, Boxer said. “Impact programming helps universities fulfill their broader mission of advancing knowledge and serving the public good,” she said. “By promoting social responsibility and civic engagement, universities can contribute positively to society and create a more just and sustainable world for future generations.”

“By promoting social responsibility and civic engagement, universities can contribute positively to society and create a more just and sustainable world for future generations.”

While other universities are adapting social impact academic programming, the program at the University of Utah is unique for a variety of reasons:

Public University Accessibility: Starting with the University itself, the University of Utah is a public university. While many private universities are investing in impact, being at a public university provides accessibility for students of more diverse backgrounds and interests. Uniquely, impact is at the heart of the University’s mission and the strategic direction set by President Randall.

Deep Investment in an Impact Community: In August 2024, the Sorenson Impact Institute and Center for Business, Health and Prosperity will open the Impact & Prosperity Epicenter, the world’s first live-learn impact community. The goal of the Epicenter is to unite, inspire, and equip changemakers to work on and solve the world’s most significant challenges. With the Epicenter, the University seeks to engage every student at some point in their time at the University and catalyze campus-wide social-impact engagement.

Combination of Academic and Experiential Learning: The University’s unique focus on building a strong academic program, combined with experiential learning and access to leading practitioners in the field, creates a holistic program that promotes hands-on learning and collaboration. By thinking critically about impact principles and engaging directly with real-world problems, students can apply their academic learning in meaningful ways.

 

Evolving the Program for the Future

Social impact courses are just the beginning of the Institute’s academic offerings. The program will evolve in the 2024-2025 school year with the degree designation Impact + X. Sponsored by the David Eccles School of Business, the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy, the Sorenson Impact Institute, and the Center for Business, Health, and Prosperity, this program welcomes undergraduate students from all disciplines and backgrounds at the University to investigate social impact and prosperity promotion. The three-course progression will give students a basic understanding of an impact strategy, an introduction to the roles and responsibilities of business in a broader social context, and an opportunity to explore those topics in further depth. This designation is intended to be interdisciplinary, jointly drawing on courses offered by the business school and across campus.

Intended for students seeking to channel their interests toward positive societal change, the Impact + X program encourages students to view their chosen disciplines through the lens of value creation, social impact, and global prosperity. “Impact + X combines traditional coursework with experiential learning, concentrating on social impact and prosperity promotion,” said Boxer. “This approach empowers students to apply their learning and skills to solve real-world problems.”

“This distinctive feature of the program will enhance the marketability of its graduates, equipping them with the specialized knowledge and skills sought by employers in today’s increasingly sustainability-conscious business landscape.”

Aligning with the evolving job market, Impact + X aims to prepare students from any major for the rapidly growing demand for knowledge in social and environmental factors, stakeholder theory, and related concepts. Impact + X seeks to fill a critical gap by helping students develop a deep understanding of impact principles and their application in real-world scenarios. As Boxer said, “This distinctive feature of the program will enhance the marketability of its graduates, equipping them with the specialized knowledge and skills sought by employers in today’s increasingly sustainability-conscious business landscape.”

Learn more about Sorenson Impact Institute’s Student Program.

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