Essay defending business schools from recent criticism

Attacks on business and business education (including this one recently at Inside Higher Ed) are commonplace, and not just in higher education. The Obama administration’s call to action on income inequality more or less explicitly lays blame at the feet of corporate America, and Pope Francis wrote a letter last December widely interpreted as denigrating business. There is no doubt that the U.S. middle class is suffering downward mobility. Victims include the humanities professors who call for us to close business schools in order to save humanities education. But polarizing comments on these issues from within the academy do little to help us embrace the role that U.S. higher education institutions can and should play in promoting good citizenship, ethical leadership, and national economic vitality.

The cost of a residential four-year college or university experience will contribute to inequality unless we can figure out ways to increase access. This will require both cost control and creative approaches for new revenue generation. Some activities on our campuses generate profits, while others require subsidies. At the undergraduate level, at least, business schools hosted by liberal arts colleges or as parts of large universities that have an arts and sciences college typically generate revenue considerably above costs and have some of the highest “contribution margins” on campus.

Business school deans in these settings, and perhaps others, feel great pressure to balance educational quality and post-graduate opportunity against cost control because, on the one hand, families demand a “return on investment” and, on the other, salaries and infrastructure expenses at business schools tend to be higher than the campus average. Whatever our politics, most of us business school deans believe in the still-great promise of U.S. higher education, with its liberal arts roots, and are pleased to help balance the campuswide budget.

But beyond feeling good, we need the humanities departments precisely because they help our business students become individuals whose actions will demonstrate strong moral and ethical behavior. Around the time of the Enron scandal, as corporations and individual business leaders appeared to lose their way more than usual, many business schools took up the challenge of educating for greater social responsibility. In 1999, business schools around the globe began competing to be highly ranked for their commitment to business education emphasizing social and environmental concerns. So successful was that effort, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, that it was disbanded in 2012 because the issues and concerns initially highlighted as absent from business education had become mainstream.

Playing a similar role, Net Impact is a business-school centered “community of more than 50,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace and the world.” In 2013, leading business schools joined forces with powerful corporate sponsors to launch a national U.S. conference on how business schools can do more to support “underserved communities.”

We need humanities departments to help illuminate the powerful ways in which business can be a force for good. “The freedom and extent of human commerce depend entirely on a fidelity with regard to promises,” wrote David Hume, a leading thinker of the Enlightenment. Confucius put it succinctly, as always: “Virtue is the root, while wealth is the branch.” The Quran says that “Profit cannot be but fair if business follows the religious instructions.” Other examples abound across time and across cultures, including from the U.S.’s pre-Civil War history. Study of business through the lens of the humanities helps explain the language used today by many business leaders who speak about earning and preserving corporations’ “social license to operate.”

Higher education administration makes little sense if one has no faith in our social purpose, but our social license to operate is also under attack. Rather than scurry to meet demand for pre-professional majors on four-year liberal arts campuses and risk aggravating tensions among schools and departments, we should be getting out of our foxholes and looking for alignment and synergy.

The case made for computational thinking skills gained in STEM majors, for example, sounds a lot like the case made for humanities majors. Absent support from a vibrant humanities faculty, I certainly cannot achieve my goal of delivering a “values-based” business education that molds individuals whose actions will affirm corporate commitment to ethical standards and social responsibility. The current bureaucratic structure of most higher-education institutions makes interdisciplinary teaching harder than it should be, and the tenure system arguably militates against cross-disciplinary research. But rather than succumbing to fear and negativity in the face of financial pressures, faculty should take up the challenge of being credible, respected advocates for integrative learning and for the changes required to make it a reality.


Sylvia Maxfield is dean of the Providence College School of Business.

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U. of Oregon President Resigns After 2 Years in Office

The University of Oregon announced Wednesday that its president, Michael Gottfredson, was resigning, effective today, The Oregonian reported. He has been in office for only two years. While the move is being described as a resignation, the newspaper noted that it had "telltale signs of a forced departure: Gottfredson does not have a new job lined up, it was announced the day before it takes effect, and he cites spending more time with family as a key motive."

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Suit Against LSU Alumni Group Over an Affair's Aftermath

A lawsuit filed in a state court is raising awkward questions about the Louisiana State University Alumni Association. The Times-Picayune reported that the suit is by a woman who says she had an affair with Charlie Roberts, president and CEO of the association. The suit says the affair started before he hired her. Later, the suit charges, board members found out about the relationship and said that either Roberts had to quit or she did. She says she was offered payouts of $3,200 a month if she quit, and she sued when the payments stopped. She is seeking to have them restored.

Roberts and other association officials did not respond to requests for comment. F. King Alexander, president of LSU, issued this statement: "LSU takes these accusations seriously, and will conduct an inquiry to gather all the facts. We will ensure that we do the right thing by our alumni and our university."

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Ex-Employee Accused of Stealing $110,000 for Drug Use

Authorities have charged Robert Walmsley of stealing $110,000 from his former employer, Framingham State University, reported. Walmsley allegedly used a university issued card to purchase prepaid Visa gift cards and then used those to buy drugs or to get cash. Before being dismissed, he worked in the university's alumni affairs and development office.


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Adjunct leaders talk about long-term strategies

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Adjunct leaders -- even as they push votes on collective bargaining -- are talking about how to maintain engagement with the rank-and-file well into the future.


NCAA governance shift is a power grab that will fuel an arms race (essay)

I recently left the confines of Division I athletics and delivered a commencement address at a Division III college where athletes compete without scholarship in true amateur fashion.  If you travel far enough back in the last century, that’s the way it was in intercollegiate athletics, as evidenced by Daniel James Brown’s fine book on the University of Washington rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. It was the 1930s and the young men who won the gold medal in crew at Hitler’s Olympics were not on scholarship. They were just glad to get on the team so the university could line up a part-time job on campus to help pay their tuition. 

The NCAA has ranged far afield from the amateur athletics model of days gone by and most of the reforms recently proposed by the NCAA would move it even closer to professional sports. Of course, Division I athletics is already big business, producing millions of dollars in revenue for universities willing and able to make the most expensive investments in their programs -- programs that look less and less like they bear any relationship to the university’s mission and role.

More on NCAA Governance

  • Thursday's vote could put more distance before college sports' haves and have-nots. Read more.
  • We'll discuss Thursday's NCAA vote and the implications for college sports on This Week @ Inside Higher Ed, our weekly audio show. Click here to find out more.

Over the past three decades, the NCAA has regularly tweaked its governance structure to perpetuate the dominance of a few dozen universities. The so-called “big five” conferences, which have the most resources, continue to pull the strings, with two conferences (the Big Ten and Southeastern Athletic Conferences) taking the lead in calling the shots for the others.. It seems they are never satisfied with their bloated athletic budgets, especially when threatened in recent years by upstart, so-called mid-major programs that steal recruits, oftentimes beat the big boys, “mess with” the national rankings and sometimes take postseason bowl games and revenue away from the anointed few. If they have the resources to outspend their Division I colleagues, then why not fix the NCAA rules to let them do so. 

The latest round of NCAA reforms proposes a new governance structure that President Harris Pastides of the University of South Carolina described in a New York Times op-ed piece as allowing universities “to independently determine at what level they can provide resources to benefit students.” Now there’s a surefire way to kick off a race for larger athletics budgets. At the very least, they are to be commended for their honesty. 

Of course, this grab for money and power is couched in the noblest of terms -- it’s all about the athletes and paying them beyond the scholarship because they generate revenue for the programs. 

Forget the fact that only two Division I sports -- men’s football and men’s basketball -- produce the millions of dollars that fuel the NCAA sports empire and member universities, although all but a couple of dozen operate in the red anyway.  All other athletes, while valuable members of the university community, play little if any role in revenue generation for the university.  Their teams are called non-revenue sports for a reason.

So what do full scholarship athletes receive now for competing in Division 1 athletics? They receive a scholarship consisting of full tuition, room and board, books and fees, and will leave the university primarily debt-free, unlike the average university student, who will leave with $23,000 of debt.

In some of the most expensive sports -- football and basketball come to mind -- special training tables give athletes access to a quantity and quality of food not provided to other students.  Athletic programs provide academic support in the form of study halls, computer access, tutoring, advising and life skills programming, usually not available to their non-athlete counterparts.  Athletes receive special academic privileges such as signing up for class before the rush of other students, guaranteeing athletes get the classes of their choice.  Athletes receive free professional-level coaching, strength and fitness training, nutritional guidance and access to athletic trainers and physical therapists.  In the case of football, athletes travel to games in chartered jets with first-class luxury.   

It is sometimes hard to believe that our finest universities and their presidents are behind this effort to fuel what the former NCAA President Myles Brand termed the “arms race” in Division I athletic budgets.  You would think that the primacy of the academic mission and the long-held principles of amateur athletics would trump the drive toward commercialism and professionalism in the athletic department.  You would think that university presidents would be up in arms at the way the NFL and the NBA use the universities’ athletic departments as training camps and minor league clubs for professional sports. 

It is beyond me why university presidents are so quick to fall in line with powerful conference commissioners who seem to be calling the shots with these NCAA reforms.  But I have no doubt why the power conferences are working to separate themselves from some Division I universities who still see the value of equity and fairness in athletic funding.  Lately, those pesky mid-major programs such as Boise State -- my university -- and many others have showed up the big boys for what they are -- wasteful models of athletic spending that cannot be justified. 

The year that Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl our entire football budget was less than the salary alone of the Oklahoma football coach. Today, as a USA Today database shows, the Boise State budget for the entire athletic program is $37 million -- and I’m sure there are some who think that excessive. But contrast that budget to the University of Alabama at $124 million, the University of Illinois at $77 million, the University of Nebraska at $83 million or the University of Missouri at $64 million. 

What accounts for the difference, you ask?  The absurd specialization in staffing and coaching accounts for some of this, with recruiting coaches’ assignments reaching as far down as the sophomore year in high school. How embarrassing to spend all that money and then have someone with half the budget or less beat you on Saturday afternoon or, more problematical, beat you in the academic progress department, as Boise State has done to most of Division I for the past four years!

It’s time for the NCAA to take a stand for fiscal responsibility and the rightful place of intercollegiate athletics in American higher education and put a stop to the arms race by rejecting all reforms that turn an already premier and first-class experience for athletes who are also students into a system that simply models professional sports.

Three aspects of the NCAA reforms do make sense and should take precedence over all other issues. First, improved medical monitoring and changes in some rules on the field can avoid the serious aftereffects of concussion injuries.  Second, student-athletes deserve the opportunity to come back after their playing days and finish their education at the university’s expense.  Finally, there must be rules about how to protect a student from loss of an athletic scholarship because of a career-ending injury.

In the end, it’s about getting our priorities straight and focusing on the real student-athlete issues, not those fabricated by the elite few with ulterior motives. 

The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy of athletic programs that serves no useful purpose in American higher education.

Bob Kustra serves as President of Boise State University.

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Probe Ordered of Air Force Academy Athletics

The Air Force Academy has ordered a probe of its athletics department after a report in The Colorado Springs Gazette about numerous violations of academy rules and the law by athletes and the way some officials in the past have looked the other way. The Gazette article describes how "cadet athletes flouted the sacred honor code by committing sexual assaults, taking drugs, cheating and engaging in other misconduct at wild parties while the service academy focused on winning bowl games and attracting money from alumni and private sources in recent years."


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A North Dakota university looks to partner with and maybe buy a for-profit consulting firm

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A small private college gets very close to financial firm -- and hires its founder.

Interim President Gives Up Part of Salary for Low-Paid Workers

The interim president of Kentucky State University, Raymond Burse, asked his board to cut more than $90,000 from his $350,000 salary so that raises could be given to those who earn the least at the institution, The Herald-Leader reported. The money will be used to raise the salaries of those who earn less than $10.25 an hour (considered by many to be the lowest livable wage) to that level.

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U. of Virginia Criticized Over Draft Guidelines for Trustees

Legislators and others are criticizing a draft policy under consideration by the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors that suggests that they should not publicly criticize decisions made by the board, The Washington Post reported. The draft distinguishes between debate before and after a decision is made. “After robust discussion of an issue, we strive to reach a consensus on the merits,” the draft says. “Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.” Critics say that the policy is anti-democratic and anti-dissent. Others are criticizing the $200,000 paid to a consultant to help develop the policy. The board has been reviewing how it can function better in light of a governance crisis two years ago when board members attempted to oust the university president.


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