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Higher Education’s Role in Fostering Social Responsibility

Higher ed institutions have a moral imperative to give back to the communities they serve through partnerships, cultural changes and individual empowerment.

Since assuming the role of CEO and President of Westcliff University in 2008, I have been steadfast in my belief that education should extend beyond the confines of academia. I can tie this back to a pivotal childhood trip I took with my grandmother to visit the impoverished village in Vietnam where she gave birth to my father and his siblings.

Since I was born and raised in the United States, learning about my cultural roots with my grandmother was a very important and formative lesson for me. During this trip, my eyes were opened as I witnessed the villagers of my father’s birth town face daily challenges in accessing fundamental necessities such as food, healthcare, clean water and clothing, highlighting the immediate need for aid and support.

My grandmother prioritized giving back, which meant hauling countless bags of rice along muddy paths through the village and distributing food and other essentials to the community. The line stretched long, filled with villagers in need of the items we brought. I can recall some people lacked shoes, others grappled with health ailments. Yet despite such formidable hardships, they were full of life and profound appreciation.

The lack of basic necessities I saw during this trip was not something I had previously experienced. To say it was eye opening is an understatement. While this voyage back to my roots made me appreciate what I had and the journey my grandparents took to provide my family with more opportunities, gratitude alone wasn’t sufficient. I was compelled to make a real impact through action and from there my passion for social responsibility was born.

Witnessing firsthand the transformative power of giving back fueled my determination to establish Westcliff University as a school that places generosity and acts of selflessness in high regard. That’s why we have made it our mission to integrate social responsibility into the very fabric of our institution.

Cultivating a Culture of Giving Back

Westcliff University embraces the ethos of social responsibility as an integral part of our educational mission. Founded three decades ago by my immigrant father with little more than a dream, Westcliff has since blossomed into an institution that educates, inspires and empowers over 6,000 students from diverse backgrounds and over 100 countries worldwide.

Central to our identity are core values of integrity, accountability, global citizenship, social responsibility, collaboration, compassion and diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) that not only guide our actions but also permeate every aspect of the institution.

In 2023, Westcliff’s deep-rooted generosity was exemplified through the 584 students, staff, faculty and alumni volunteers who dedicated 5,188 combined hours of community service and donated 1,100 necessities for people in need. This alignment with our core values not only strengthens our institutional identity but also serves as a powerful catalyst for positive change in our local community and society in general.

As academic leaders, we must recognize the massive potential of creating a culture of social responsibility within our institutions to embolden future leaders to make a meaningful impact on the world through philanthropic pursuits.

Collaborative Partnerships Create Social Impact at the University Level

Partnerships with nonprofit organizations offer an avenue for universities to create social impact within their communities. These collaborations enrich educational experiences and demonstrate an institutional commitment to societal accountability and local involvement. Through combined efforts, universities can amplify their impact and establish a legacy of service and compassion.

Westcliff takes great pride in its ability to forge lasting connections with community organizations whose missions align with our core institutional values. One such organization is Unlimited Possibilities (UP), an Orange County-based nonprofit providing specialized care and comprehensive support for over 5,300 children and families with disabilities. We partnered with UP to facilitate the UP to Us Bike Camp this past summer, where Westcliff taught children and teens with and without disabilities how to ride a bike.

Additionally, the university hosted two Inclusive Sports Days that helped hundreds of children with disabilities enjoy recreational activities for the first time alongside student-athletes, staff and the Inclusive Sports Foundation. Westcliff also provides donations, volunteers and financial contributions to support Second Harvest Food Bank and Laura’s House throughout the year. By actively participating in and sponsoring altruistic functions with local charities, Westcliff provides inspiring opportunities for staff, faculty, students and alumni to be a positive influence within their broader community.

Empowerment Through Education: Scholarships and Professional Development

Encouraging benevolence at the collegiate level goes beyond mere charitable contributions. For example, Westcliff provides scholarships valued at nearly $3 million annually, easing the financial burden for students from diverse backgrounds and empowering them on their educational journeys.

It’s also important to prioritize causes that employees care about. Each year, Westcliff employees are given eight hours of paid time to volunteer with an organization of their choosing. In 2023, the university furthered its faculty and staff-focused corporate social responsibility efforts through the introduction of the Employee Charitable Contributions On Your Behalf program. This program allows employees to apply for donations to eligible charities from a yearly pooled amount. Each employee can receive up to $500 per application, with a maximum annual support of $1000.

Guiding Principles for Sustainable Higher Education Social Responsibility Initiatives

Higher education plays a crucial role in nurturing and cultivating a commitment to social responsibility, equipping students, faculty, staff and alumni with the tools and opportunities to become active agents of positive change. For other university leaders embarking on a similar journey, I encourage you to:

  • Surround yourself with passionate people: Seek out individuals who share your commitment to making a positive impact. Passionate collaborators can drive meaningful change.
  • Build a solid foundation: Establish clear values and goals for your organization. Having a strong foundation ensures efforts align with your mission.
  • Take action: Social responsibility isn’t just a concept—it’s about tangible actions. Translate your values into initiatives that create real-world impact.
  • Develop a strategic focus: Begin by creating a well-defined strategy. Understand your organization’s goals and how your philanthropic efforts align with them. A clear focus maximizes outcomes.
  • Align with core values: Choose nonprofits that resonate with your company’s core values. When your charitable initiatives align with what your organization stands for, it creates a more authentic and beneficial partnership.
  • Diverse support: Look for partners that you can support in multiple ways. Beyond financial donations, consider sponsorship opportunities, volunteering and other forms of engagement to strengthen your influence.
  • Engage everyone: Provide opportunities for all stakeholders to be involved. A collective effort from employees, students and alumni ensures broader participation and a more substantial commitment to your social responsibility goals.
  • Direct interaction: Select a nonprofit that allows you to directly interact with the people you’re helping. Understanding clients, beneficiaries or community members’ needs firsthand enhances student and faculty empathy and effectiveness.
  • Embrace Collective Responsibility: Remember that social responsibility belongs to everyone. Whether you’re an individual, a team or an entire organization, seize opportunities to do good—you’ll never regret it.

Establishing a culture of giving back within higher education institutions is not just a noble pursuitbut a moral imperative. As leaders in academia, it is our responsibility to integrate these principles into our core values and guide every aspect of our institution’s mission. By empowering individuals through education, scholarships and professional development and forging collaborative social impact partnerships, we are shaping a future where compassion and generosity are paramount.