With the transition to knowledge-based economies, higher education (HE) has become a driving factor for economic and social development. Alongside high-quality education and excellent research, social responsibility (SR) has become an important aspect of universities’ accountability and legitimacy. Considering the growing importance of SR for universities operating in stratified systems, the objective of this study is to analyse how HE research has conceptualised a socially responsible university over time and to understand the role of the institutional and organisational environment in the implementation of SR in universities. The study employed a systematic literature review of prominent HE journals, covering a 30-year period. Findings show that SR is an umbrella concept, which has evolved from being a moral duty to provide service to society, to engaging external stakeholders in universities’ core functions, and more recently to showing evidence of social impact. The extent to which SR becomes implemented and legitimised as a core HE function is influenced by institutional and organisational factors. National policies and public funding, organisational strategy and incentives, and faculty agency were found to be important levers of implementation. This study informs practical application by showing that the implementation of SR requires coherence between SR strategies and structures, and incentives to strengthen internal commitment to SR. Furthermore, it proposes a research agenda on the evaluation of universities’ social impact and the influence of institutional pressures on organisational responses for SR.