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.