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October 14, 2010

Senate Matters: Ideas that matter

How does one change the world? What is the role of the University in producing knowledge that changes the world? We’ve all heard the stories of Google and Facebook as world-changing innovations that were envisioned on college campuses across the country. But what about organ transplant technology, Operation Troop Appreciation, foam-based building materials, robotic mobility devices or solar-assisted window fans? These are just a few of the examples of the innovations developed or contributed to by Pitt faculty, students and alumni that are having an impact on lives, communities and the world. The Oct. 26 fall plenary session of the University Senate is entitled: “Social Entrepreneurship at Pitt: Innovators, Change-makers and Local Heroes.” We will discuss the various ways that Pitt faculty, staff, students and alumni are engaging in social innovation and we also will debate the role of the University in supporting and encouraging these types of social entrepreneurial endeavors.

Social entrepreneurs combine research, knowledge and a passion for change to make an impact on the world around them. They also are described as nontraditional thinkers who use business solutions to address a social problem or mission. Across the Pitt campus, there are a number of examples of social entrepreneurship that utilize the expertise and innovative practice from our faculty, students and staff. Whether working with nonprofit ventures, traditional business with a social mission or hybrid partnership of business-government-community, social entrepreneurs look for the most effective methods to have a social impact that creates meaningful change. This plenary session will bring together expertise on social entrepreneurship to explore the various ways in which students, faculty and units across the University are engaged actively in research, projects and partnerships that tackle major social issues and offer new ideas for local and national change.

Make no mistake that this plenary session is about opening our eyes to the possibilities that exist across the campus and how our University can and must support this type of social enterprise. Our offices, classrooms, labs and campuses are the best incubators of the essential process of taking a good idea and transforming it into reality that has significant impact. Some may argue that our University should not be in the business of “changing the world.” However, stimulating, cultivating and recognizing social innovation is absolutely consistent with the University’s commitment, prominently stated on its home page, to be a “leader in education, pioneer in research, partner in regional development.” As we examine the various ways that social entrepreneurship takes places across the campus, we will examine the role of the University as the incubator for these types of activities among faculty, staff and students.

The fall plenary session will highlight the work of Pitt students such as Micah Toll (mechanical engineering), whose inventions include a foam-based building material that is lightweight yet strong enough to be used in rebuilding communities devastated by disaster. Our keynote speaker will be Rory A. Cooper, Distinguished Professor and FISA Foundation-Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair, of the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, who will discuss “Social Entrepreneurship: Forging New Freedoms for People With Disabilities” and highlight some of his research and partnerships that are creating new products using technologies such as robotic mobility devices. Our panel discussion will feature Max F. Miller, director of the Innovation Practice Institute in the School of Law; Laura Atkinson Schaefer, deputy director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and associate professor and Bicentennial Board of Visitors Faculty Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in the Swanson School of Engineering; Ann Dugan, assistant dean and director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration; and Tracy Soska, assistant professor, community organization and social administration concentration chair and continuing education director, School of Social Work. Panel members will discuss the activities within their units that are devoted to social entrepreneurship and outline what can help to stimulate more social innovation across the Pitt campus.

As chair of this plenary session, my hope is that our eyes will be opened to the amazing work that is being done across the campus as well as the opportunities for even greater social entrepreneurship among our faculty, staff and students. I am director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership within Pitt Business, where our core mission is to “add value to organizations through ethical leadership.” Our experience-based learning approach to developing leaders of today and tomorrow engages students in social entrepreneurship activities to highlight the role of social responsibility as essential for effective and ethical leadership — especially for those with the potential to change the world.

I hope you will join us Oct. 26 at noon in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room as we seek to gain a better understanding of the many ways our faculty, staff, students and alumni are producing ideas that matter.

Audrey J. Murrell is an associate professor of business administration, psychology and public and international affairs, and director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration (

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