A decade ago, New York University Stern School of Business professor Jeffrey Younger noticed something about the capstone project to his course, Business and Society, a required class for first-year freshmen.
“These are first-year freshmen that wrote some incredibly thoughtful, well-written papers that had begged to be published,” Younger says. “So I published them. I mean, I got a team of people from the class and we published it. And it was so popular that we expanded it to the entire course.”
Those student papers turned into the first issue of The Call For Corporate Action: NYU Stern Student Voices. Now, 10 years later, the course — and publication — are as popular as ever. According to Younger, who co-teaches the course with fellow NYU Stern professor Matt Statler, the course capstone essays originated from an “exciting and challenging” question prompt.
“And that is, now that you’ve looked at problems of the world and done an analysis of social issues and looked at some of the companies that were at the root of the issue — even causing the issues in some cases — what could you advocate? What could you recommend the companies do that they would realistically do,” Younger explains. “Because you’re not going to tell McDonald’s to stop selling hamburgers. But you can tell Mcdonald’s to start looking at getting behind more thoughtful ways of raising cattle or packaging or even their menu.”
As freshmen, the students were all writing solid papers that were publishable, Younger says.
PART OF STERN’S FOUR-COURSE SOCIAL IMPACT MENU
Since then, the main change in the course is how it’s grown. Taken during the spring semester of freshmen year, now more than 700 Stern students take the course, which is split into 36 sections of 20 or more students. After a Monday night presentation, students spend two more class sessions each week writing and discussing the weekly presentations. Students write and submit a final paper at the end of the course.
The 36 professors then pick the best papers from their individual classes, which are placed into a repository. A team of past student-authors read the selected papers and rank each paper based on areas like creativity, feasibility, critical thinking, and “wow-factor,” Younger says. Student editors eventually whittle the nominations down to just 10 papers and make many of the edits before publication. Younger says previous issues are used as the text for the class itself so students can not only see how previous students have approached the final topics and papers but also use it as inspiration.
The course is one of four required social impact courses in the undergraduate curriculum at Stern. Stern students are required to take a social impact-focused course each year. Social impact has been baked into the Stern curriculum since 1998 when the school first introduced social impact into undergraduate education. “It’s the thoughtful spine that runs through the whole undergraduate business education,” Younger says of the required social impact curriculum.
SOLVING THE ISSUES OF CONFLICT DIAMONDS TO JELLYFISH CLOGGING INTAKE PIPES
As could be imagined, Younger has seen many unique and interesting papers and topics over the past 10 years of publishing the journal. “The times change, but the students channel what is going to happen,” Younger says. For example, Younger says some of his early students began talking about alternative, small power plants before other mainstream media did. “They sort of predicted this world of cogeneration plants,” Younger says of the more environmentally-conscious way of combining heat and power to generate electricity and heat.
Other topics have looked at how to create competitive advantages for development diamonds instead of conflict diamonds or converting jellyfish, which can clog intake pipes around the world into absorbable diapers. The detail and randomness of topic areas are also reflected in the 10-year anniversary issue published today. Topics range from becoming “coral positive” to using dandelion roots as an alternative to rubber.
“In my own essay which was selected for the Spring 2019 issue, I advocated for increased on-dock rail usage to move cargo to and from the Port of Long Beach, which would reduce the port’s reliance on container trucking,” says Avery Farm, who graduates from Stern this spring and is this year’s Lead Senior Editor. “Less container trucks mean fewer emissions for surrounding residents, improved port efficiency, and better utilization of an existing taxpayer-funded rail line. In this manner, the incentives of corporations, government, and community are aligned.”
‘I SEE MORE HOPE AMONG CURRENT STUDENTS’
Over the past decade, Younger says he sees increased hope among current business students.
“I think the cynicism has changed,” Younger says, noting how different things were 10 years ago after the Great Recession. “You couldn’t see a way out of many of these problems that were systemic.” Students are less skeptical now, Younger explains. “It’s a bit ironic in a pandemic, but I see more hope among current students,” Younger continues, noting NYU’s unraveling of as many ties to Wall Street. “There were far more quants than poets,” Younger says. “And now we have had some thoughtful students that have gone on to start their own companies.”
The project and course are part of Stern’s greater mission to produce thoughtful, forward-thinking business leaders that look beyond managing to the stockholder or customer and into thinking about employees, the community, and how impactful the product is on creating value for the world. “If it doesn’t create value for the rest of society, it’s not a sustainable product,” Younger maintains. “I think what we’re doing is changing enough hearts and minds to matter. Because it does matter.”
It also provides students a real-life way of looking at problem-solving.
“Being an author for The Call gave my ideas a voice. Being an editor for The Call exposed me to issues I had never heard of before and has shown me hundreds of different ways to solve problems,” Avery says. “This is incredibly valuable to any business student because solving problems is at the core of what business is. Our authors’ creativity has inspired me to continue searching for ways to improve business’s impact on society well beyond my undergraduate career.”