Social responsibility: the role of the university

Astrong sense of social responsibility and a deep concern for the welfare of neighbors and fellowmen are among the strongest institutions of our nation. When the French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 19th century, he admired Americans' willingness to join voluntarily ``in working for the good of one's fellow citizens.''

Increasingly, today's business leaders seek employees who have the technical and management skills to do their work, but who also exhibit keen understanding of broader social perspectives. They believe commitment to philanthropy and volunteer service is necessary for an employee to achieve success in today's competitive marketplace.

Exxon Corporation chairman Clifton C. Garvin Jr. has said, ``Successful business does best in communities that are alive, healthy, and secure. And that means that business has to look beyond its basic economic function. To stay in business, we have to make a profit. To succeed in business, we have to share some of that profit, beyond the dividends and taxes we pay, for the public good.''

I, too, believe the growth and success of corporations and their communities depend on mutually cultivated relationships. We must meet these challenges head on. We must be prepared to forge new partnerships and initiatives. To make them effective, we must insist that our future leaders understand and appreciate the fundamental interdependence among the companies for which they work and the cities in which they live.

Universities must inculcate these values by creating courses that develop a social consciousness in students. They must realize that professional wholeness involves more than the 40-hour workweek and weekend recreation. It involves volunteering significant energy and talent for the betterment of their communities.

Volunteering helps students grow personally, learn new skills, and accept new responsibilities. Studies indicate that 1 out of every 4 Americans over the age of 13 is involved in community volunteer work. Volunteers, sensitive to local needs, deliver at highly responsive levels. Their service is marked by respect for the dignity of recipients, something frequently missing in help provided by business or government organizations.

University humanities and social sciences courses raise the level of student social consciousness and reinforce their concern for fellowmen. Such courses are as fundamental as courses in law, medicine, engineering, and accounting.

Social critic Daniel Yankelovich observed that over the past two decades, Americans have become too concerned with ``self.'' He said, ``The psychology of affluence must give way to a new realism of expectation and a renewed emphasis on the social virtues of sharing, giving, committing, sacrificing, participating, and even denying one's own pleasure of the moment. And above all, there has to be renewed interest in the future; in thinking about it, planning for it, saving it, and taking responsibility for it.''

Volunteers and supporters of voluntary organizations demonstrate the social-responsibility ethic admired by Yankelovich and de Tocqueville. It is present but all too frequently dormant in today's students. Our responsibility is to help them discover and exercise it. In constructing university curricula and student programs, educators must be aware that social responsibility is a vital element of a total education.

Seton Hall University students do volunteer work with needy groups in local communities. The university encourages students to invest energy and talent for community betterment, through social service and political action.

Many of our students work in urban soup kitchens. Food distribution programs are a vital lifeline to the homeless and needy. They constitute the links that hold this lifeline together.

Villanova's Social Action Office coordinates various student/community projects. It recently sponsored ``Project Sunshine,'' a program to help needy Mexican families build an apartment complex.

And Villanova's Office of Campus Ministry has sponsored a ``Hunger Awareness Week'' to help feed 12,000 Haitian children and support Augustinian missions in Peru. The program also included a ``Run for Hunger,'' letter-writing campaigns, and art exhibits.

The University of Maine's blood drives collect more blood than any other organization in New England.

At Tulane University, volunteers tutor high school students and prisoners, and give time in legal and medical clinics. Drake University students in Iowa work with handicapped and gifted children, assist at a veterans' medical center, and counsel children with family problems.

At Seton Hall, we believe volunteerism and community service are basic to the ``whole'' education universities must emphasize. We believe this combination of social responsibility and quality education creates the successful graduate.

It is only through concerted effort that we can contribute to peace, relieve hunger and poverty, and make the world a better place.

Msgr. John J. Petillo is chancellor of Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.

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