College business programs look to the liberal arts model

17 hours ago

A few dozen professors are packed into a lecture hall at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They’re here from schools all over the country to talk about how to bring the critical thinking and creativity associated with the liberal arts into their business programs.

“Traditional business programs really tend to be taught from a single standpoint, usually a managerial standpoint,” said Jeffrey Nesteruk, a professor of legal studies at Franklin & Marshall. “What we strive to do is to teach these same subjects but from multiple standpoints.”

Nesteruk is leading research to help colleges — from the University of Pennsylvania to Mount Holyoke — transform the traditional model of a business major.

“So for instance in finance, the model says the role of the firm is the maximization of shareholder wealth,” he said.

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In a typical finance class, you might accept that at face value and move on to figuring out how firms maximize wealth. Not at F&M.

“We linger over that assumption,” he said.  “Why is that the purpose of the firm? Are there different purposes? What is served if you think of the firm that way? What is taken away?”

And how's this for breaking the mold? An entrepreneurship professor has teamed up with an improvisational dance instructor to teach a course on creativity. Another class combines literature and sustainable food production.

Business is the most popular undergraduate major in the country, but employers often complain that today’s graduates don’t have enough critical thinking, writing, and communication skills — the sort of skills you might develop by studying, say, literature or history. 

The Business and Society Program of the Aspen Institute co-sponsored the workshop. The goal isn’t only to produce more employable graduates, said associate director Claire Preisser, but more responsible business leaders.

“One way we try to achieve that is by influencing what new and future business leaders learn in their formal education,” she said.

Students also want their careers to have meaning and social impact, said Kendy Hess, an associate professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, and they’re increasingly discontent with government as the main driver of social change.

“So people who want to fix things are more and more drawn to business as the place where you can get things done,” she said.

At a time when all colleges are under pressure to launch their graduates into productive careers, business has a lot to offer the liberal arts, too, said Hess.

“At the very least, internships and experiences and a chance to take all of this knowledge and information and understanding and dialogue, and try to use it,” she said.