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Nobel laureate kick-starts CSUCI institute

By   /   Monday, February 8th, 2010  /   Comments Off on Nobel laureate kick-starts CSUCI institute

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California State University, Channel Islands, is launching a new social business institute it hopes will revolutionize its curriculum — and it has a Nobel laureate as its pitchman.

CSUCI will feature Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, in a keynote event on Feb. 26 that also launches the university’s new California Institute for Social Business.

The institute is the first of its kind in the California public university system, and the fact that CSUCI, launched in 2002, is still a relatively new institution means it’s well positioned to try something different. “We’re nimble, and part of our flexibility is that we’re a young institution,” CSUCI President Richard Rush said. “We’re able to try to implement those things that are interdisciplinary, multi-cultural and international.”

Rush said he told Yunus, “ ‘We’re trying not to replicate what is going on elsewhere — good as it is — we want to try something new not tried anywhere else. Something truly interdisciplinary.’ ”

In a speech in Berlin, Yunus had said that CSUCI is a university “educating for the future.”

With the launch of the institute, the university is seeking to move its curriculum forward, exposing students to issues of poverty and environmental problems and educating them to come up with market-based solutions.

The university was put in touch with the Nobel laureate by Julia Wilson, its vice president for advancement. She had formerly worked with Yunus’ Grameen Bank, the organization widely credited as the catalyst for the international microfinance movement.

Yunus and the bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for providing access to credit to thousands of the world’s poorest, people who usually don’t have collateral to secure conventional bank financing. The idea behind microfinance is that entrepreneurs in developing countries often need only a small loan — sometimes less than $100 — to kick-start a business and become self-sustainable.

To better understand the social business concept, a group of CSUCI faculty and administrators visited Bangladesh during the early stages of planning for the institute. There, they visited with villagers in some of the poorest regions of the world, and began to understand the microfinance model and the idea of social entrepreneurship — that is, business for more than the sake of profits.

“We’re now considering the possibility of creating social businesses of our own with our students. We’d like to expose them to third world countries,” Rush said.

The new institute will have several elements. In its undergraduate curriculum, it will offer social business classes through its business school, which may lead to the establishment of a minor or concentration in social business. Students will be encouraged to study abroad to fulfill some of the requirements for the minor or concentration.

CSUCI is also looking to integrate social business concepts into its MBA program.

“Around the nation and around the world, there’s a growing interest in this field,” said CSUCI Dean of Faculty and Economics Professor Ashish Vaidya. “Business schools around the country are looking at how they should be preparing their students to be involved citizens who are aware of the challenges of the 21st century.”

Because it wants students to gain practical benefits and move beyond classroom learning, the institute will also function as an incubator for business projects. Plans suggest that the institute may host an international business plan competition, which would culminate with a ceremony including a monetary award of seed capital for winning projects.

The institute will work with students on a more regular basis to start social businesses in the surrounding community and may be able to provide a micro-loan structure to students to start such projects.

Lastly, the institute plans to be a breeding ground for academic research concerning social entrepreneurship. Faculty — ideally working with students — will conduct and publish research based on case studies and field work. If the institute is able to secure funding, an endowment will allow for a fellowship program.

“There are social problems that we need to address,” Vaidya said. “The question is, ‘Are there business solutions we can use to solve them?’ Students, with faculty supervision, can begin to address these problems, and gain real-world experience that will help them when they graduate.”

Rush said that he hopes the institute will lay the groundwork for other universities, both public and private, to follow suit. “When I was hired it was my thought that we’d try to build a 21st century university. And I’ve been privileged to have the faculty and staff join with me as we try to build something for the future,” he said.

Vaidya said that  faculty from across the board are already embracing the interdisciplinary approach — not just professors in business and economics, but also from engineering, the hard sciences and the humanities have all expressed their support for the institute.

“From an academic community standpoint, our approach is that we want to educate the whole student to be really an engaged, global citizen,” Vaidya said.

If it hopes to get all that done in the next year and a half, CSUCI has its work cut out for it. By the fall — and once the institute receives final approval from the academic senate — the university hopes to hire a director and administrative support for the institute and form advisory boards with regional, national and international partners. By next spring, it hopes to begin faculty research and student projects as well as development of the social business incubator.

All that will require millions of dollars in funding, and with a cash-strapped public university system the institute is striving to be almost purely privately funded. The endowment alone is expected to be $12 million and annual operating costs for the institute are estimated at $560,000.

Vaidya said that in the spirit of the free-enterprise system, the university is looking to the business community for monetary support. “All of this will depend on the resources we can generate. We’re not expecting state funding,” he said. “We’re hopeful that these ideas are something the private community will embrace.”

With Yunus as the institute’s public face, the university has already received a lot of attention. The Nobel prize winner will return to the Camarillo campus Feb. 26 for all-day events and to talk about his book, “Creating a World Without Poverty:  Social Business, the New Face of Capitalism.” The campus has distributed 3,600 copies of the book and expects record turnout at the event.

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