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From Burden to Asset - CSR in Higher Education

Posted by Danielle Marquis

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May 22, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Universities’ sustainability measures have evolved from a way to minimize environmental liabilities into a full-fledged opportunity to rebrand themselves. Colleges and universities now showcase their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) platforms and use them to attract positive attention to their schools. In her white paper, “What Are We Advancing? Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education,” Eileen Joseph points out, “In the image‐conscious world of higher education, a thoughtful, proactive message around sustainability can deliver a tangible advantage in the competition for students, faculty, research dollars and private funding.”



This progressive, triple bottom line approach achieves commercial success in ways “that honor ethical values and respect people, communities and the natural environment,” as Business for Social Responsibility puts it.


As universities adopt the model of green business, the priorities of people, planet and profit get woven into the fabric of their operations. Leveraging sustainable strategies as an essential part of marketing and public relations campaign works and has real results. It turns out people want to be affiliated with schools that reflect their values and are seen as capable of making something good happen. Whether you call it the “eco-advantage,” a term coined by authors Dan Esty and Andrew Winston in their seminal book Green to Gold, or “differentiated green,” the concept is identical—organizations can distinguish themselves through an aggressive green strategy. 


Sustainability measures typically create a halo effect around a school, allowing it to distinguish itself quickly—and dramatically. Take the story of Northern Arizona University, whose popularity experienced a meteoric rise when the new College of Business and College of Engineering buildings were rated LEED Gold. The business building was a game changer in how the school is perceived by others: Applications doubled and the student investment group won its first national award. Even more telling: “Without any changes to the curriculum, the College is now listed as one of the ‘Top 25’ in US News and World Report,” writes Joseph. 


Often, the benefits that a committed CSR strategy brings are serendipitous. While a strong CSR platform, predictably enough, can strengthen existing income streams, it can also serve as a fortuitous wild card, creating new, vibrant income streams as well. Richard Bowen, Northern Arizona University’s associate vice president of economic development and previous associate vice president of sustainability, is quoted in Joseph’s white paper as saying, “Our College of Business received a $25 million donation from a donor because he was looking for an MBA program that was teaching values, not just finance.”


Not only can a CPR bring in unexpected income, it can also actually save a university money—all while enhancing social good will. Business for Social Responsibility lists some of the advantages of CSR: 


  • Improved financial performance
  • Reduced operating costs
  • Enhanced brand image and reputation
  • Increased sales and customer loyalty
  • Increased productivity and quality
  • Increased ability to attract and retain employees
  • Reduced regulatory oversight
  • Access to capital


If you needed more convincing about why CSR is not a mere luxury, the research is solid. A growing body of data supports that doing good is met with an equally good return on investment. Just goes to show that for the long haul, sustainability pays—in more ways than one.


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Topics: Proposition 39, Higher Education, Sustainability Branding, CII Division


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