CSR Reporting and the University
There is currently no mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting standards for institutions of higher learning (universities) in the U.S. There is also no established governing or regulatory body designated with the responsibility of developing CSR reporting standards for universities. In recent years some universities have prepared and released self-reported CSR reports. However these reports may not be complete, much of the information included in the reports could be outdated, and all of it is subject to bias. Without commonly accepted CSR reporting standards, common reporting format, or metrics, it is difficult to compare the CSR efforts of various universities. Comparing the sustainability reports of two universities might be described as similar to comparing apples to oranges.
In a time where social and environmental factors are becoming as important as financial factors, shareholders have a right to expect accountability and need reliable information for comparability. They want to know if universities are being responsible with financial and environmental resources. To stakeholders a more reliable basis for comparability, it is my hypothesis that a common set of CSR reporting standards should be developed by a governing body or regulatory agency. This hypothesis stems from the financial accounting reporting standards required for U.S. corporations and universities that provide a basis for comparability for users of general-use financial statements. This study examines how generally accepted standards for financial reporting have developed and been implemented in the corporate world in the U.S. and if/how that development and implementation might serve as a template for university CSR reporting standards.
The study also identifies relatively recent efforts to develop CSR reporting standards for corporations in Europe. Many European corporations now release CSR reports prepared in accordance with The Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) reporting guidelines designated as “G4”. The GRI established certain principles for establishing a baseline for report content and report quality. In order to meet the G4 principles for content, a report should include at least four sections: stakeholder inclusiveness; CSR context; Materiality; and Completeness.
To support my hypothesis, I conducted a pilot study based on self-reported CSR reports by U.S. universities housed in a database maintained by AASHE. AASHE assigns each report a score based on overall quality. One of the factors receiving a score was “Completeness”. I chose the completeness principle for two reasons. It is one of the easiest to test because it does not require an evaluation of the report quality and because an incomplete report obviously lacks comparability. The sample included a mixture of private and public universities and universities of different enrollment sizes. An analysis of the pilot study is presented and the limitations associated with the study are identified. Hopefully this study will encourage professionals, and academics alike, to push for the creation of a governing body to implement and enforce a standardized policy for reporting on issues of social responsibility.