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.
The Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement Wednesday about the way the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign backed away from hiring Steven Salaita, who had been expected to take up a position in the American Indian studies program this month. Salaita had been offered the position, pending board approval, typically a formality, and the university told him recently that his appointment would not go forward, reportedly because of concerns about his comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Critics have said that the comments suggest a lack of civility, while his defenders say he is being punished for outspoken support of Palestinians.
"Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East," the Illinois AAUP statement says. "Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America."
The statement adds: "What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment."
The university has said it will not comment on the situation.
In today's Academic Minute, Sean Morrison, director of the Children’s Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, explains how a new technique for understanding the way stem cells function reveals new clues about aging and opens an undiscovered world of biology. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued Harold Washington College for age discrimination against a 66-year-old adjunct English instructor, The Chicago Tribune reported. The suit says that, when the woman applied for a full-time position, she was passed over in favor of candidates who were younger and lacked her qualifications. A spokeswoman for City Colleges of Chicago, of which Harold Washington College is a part, declined to comment.
In today's Academic Minute, Robert Burne, an adjunct senior research fellow at the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, discusses stevensite, a mineral found on both Mars and Earth. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.