KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
Students in Dr. Timothy Palmer's business ethics and sustainability class at Western Michigan University are answering that question by learning the social responsibility that comes with being a business leader.
"Most people have this image of business as being all about making a lot of money. That's 1960s business talk," says Palmer, a professor of strategic management and director of Haworth College of Business's Center for Sustainable Business Practices. "My view is business is the most important institution on the planet. How do you use that institution to make society stronger and ensure the business makes a profit at the same time?"
The answer—for students in Palmer's class—is through service.
"It's really important to get students out into the community, to get them out of the business school," Palmer says.
Since becoming a requirement for upper level business students, ethics and sustainable business has grown to a mega-class of sorts. In spring 2019 there were nearly 250 students enrolled, each tasked with completing 15 hours of community service in addition to their course work. They're paired with one of several community partners in southwest Michigan, like Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center, Communities in Schools and the YMCA.
"The benefit of a large class is the scale," says Palmer. "The call for experiential-based learning is growing, and if you only do it in smaller sections, you're going to leave out a lot of opportunity—especially at bigger schools."
"The value is how many students we can reach; how much bigger the impact is on the community."
The class also challenges students to take what they're learning from their community partners and apply it to their fields of study.
"This is a business class. When they're done with their 15 hours, students have to submit a reflection paper to me explaining something new that they learned relating to their profession," Palmer says. "What did they learn about leadership or teamwork or communication? I want them to tie it back to their career."
In some cases, the experience can even be a gateway to a career.
"I have students who've gotten job offers from our community partners because they've done such a good job," Palmer says.
Both Palmer and Tenney hope to eventually compile the successes of this service-learning "mega class" and present the findings to colleagues in higher education looking to expand the reach of their own programs.
"This is something that definitely sets WMU business graduates apart from other students," says Palmer.
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