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'Business' by Any Other Name...

February 1, 2008

Many liberal arts colleges have long struggled to balance increasing emphases on professional preparation with a core curriculum. Business, in particular, has been blooming.

But not without significant discussions at administrative and faculty levels about what that business education should look like -- and not without some aversion to calling the final products "business" programs.

“Our faculty have been pretty clear that they don’t want a business major,” says Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College. In October, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta announced a $10 million gift from Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, to develop an interdisciplinary program in “global finance and economic development,” create a scholarship program, and otherwise engage in issues of international (and local) finance and development from the perch of a new center.

A minor, or eventually, the hope is, major, in the program -- which could include courses in economics, international studies, sociology, world language and literature, and women’s studies, to name a few -- is intended to “prepare students for business careers without the kind of narrowly defined academic preparation that is often associated with business programs,” Tatum says.

Particularly for first-generation college students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, “When you dangle a ‘business major’ in front of a student who is not necessarily sophisticated in her understanding of the strengths of a liberal arts background, she may say, ‘Aha, I want to be successful, I want to go into business, I should be a business major.’…It’s a choice that’s being made without a full understanding of the options that a broader educational focus will provide for you,” Tatum says.

Spelman is far from alone among liberal arts colleges in figuring out how to fit business education in and, as such, trying out new models. “Over a period of 25 years, colleges that were once almost exclusively involved with the liberal arts have gradually entered into professional" fields, business primary among them, says Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. The council has held two symposiums on the integration of business and the liberal arts, the latest in May 2007.

What’s become a greater concern at many of the colleges is the relationship between the two, Ekman says. A booklet describing models of business education at a variety of different liberal arts colleges from the council’s 2007 symposium is testament to the time devoted to navigating the tension. Among the main approaches across the board, Ekman says, are the “blending” model, in which conventional business courses are integrated into a liberal arts major -- or, when business majors are offered, vice versa with traditional liberal arts courses.

Other approaches include a co-curricular focus -- providing internships and practicums to ensure that students have hands-on experience without necessarily designing a curricular component -- and a thematic approach. A college could for example develop a focus on “entrepreneurship” or "ethics in the corporate world" across the traditional liberal arts curriculum. "These are four basic approaches that seem to be emerging in many, many efforts," Ekman says.

Other new programs launched and launching at Claremont McKenna and Oberlin Colleges in recent months – also, like Spelman's, made possible by significant infusions of external funding -- appropriate various aspects of the four approaches, although in these cases eschewing the “business major" or minor for other curricular and co-curricular emphases on business and financial skills.

Claremont McKenna, for instance, received a landmark $200 million gift in September to start the Robert Day Scholars program. Day scholars, who will be selected as juniors, will receive scholarship support and complete an undergraduate course of study involving two semesters each in accounting, finance and organizational leadership, as well as participate in co-curricular activities like internships, workshops and networking opportunities. (Students, however, will major in other fields, be they economics or philosophy.) After graduating, the scholars will have the option of completing a planned master of finance degree -- the combination billed by Claremont as “a compelling alternative to the traditional M.B.A. framework.”

"We’ll build on what we consider to be the important aspects of liberal arts education and yet give them training that’s really valuable,” says Janet Kiholm Smith, an economics professor chairing the transition/implementation committee for the program and director of the Financial Economics Institute at Claremont McKenna.

Meanwhile, the "Creativity and Leadership: Entrepreneurship at Oberlin" initiative, launched this fall with $1.1 million in monies pledged by the Burton D. Morgan and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations, is primarily built around supporting student initiative outside the classroom, explains Andrea Kalyn, who, as associate dean for academic affairs for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is spearheading the project. The program's hallmarks are grants and fellowships, large and small (from $500 to $30,000), to support entrepreneurial projects, plus stipends for internships. Proposed projects can be purely for-profit in motive or more in the social entrepreneurship mode, or anything in between.

Supporting the grants and stipends, some of which have already been awarded, will be some classes, but no major or minor. Courses offered under the umbrella in the future will include “Launching Your Venture,” to be taught by a professor of politics. Classes taught this year include an introductory one on entrepreneurship and “Professional Development for the Freelance Artist.” Among the projects that have already been funded: A student’s attempt to identify new audiences for classical music by hosting performances in unconventional venues.

"Somebody asked me, ‘In which class do you teach them great ideas?'" Kalyn says with a laugh. "In their English class, in their music class, in their studio arts class....They need their intellectual development and their artistic development. That’s where their ideas are coming from, from who they are and what they’re doing.”

 

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