Wanted: A New Kind of College Business Program

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. Business is the largest college major in the country, and undergraduate business programs should be critical sites for preparing such leaders. However, a recent study of undergraduate business education undertaken by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that these programs are poorly designed to prepare the vibrant business professionals our society needs.

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. These observations resonate with other studies that find business majors low in civic awareness and involvement and, no less unsettling, among the poorest performers on tests of complex reasoning, problem-solving, and written communication. This means that many business students are missing the chance college should provide to develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions they need to be effective in business as well as in life. Their education is too limited to support the creativity and flexibility they need to be innovative business leaders and fails to provide them a broad vision of citizenship in American democracy.

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. These programs recognize that students need to develop intellectual perspectives that enable them to understand the role of business within the larger global society, as well as to gain technical knowledge and skills. They need an education that cultivates a sense of professionalism grounded in loyalty to the mission of business to enhance society's prosperity and well-being.

Liberal Education

This means that, like all undergraduates, business students need a liberal education. The Carnegie study defines liberal learning as education explicitly designed to enable students to make sense of the world and their place in it, preparing them to use knowledge and skills as means toward responsible engagement with the world. To contribute to the larger life of society, students must be able to draw upon varied bodies of knowledge. They need to gain fluency in looking at issues from multiple points of view, and this in turn requires the opportunity to explore with others different ways of posing problems and defining purposes. A strong liberal education, well integrated with preparation in business, has the potential to foster the kind of orientation toward social purpose that is the hallmark of professional fields.

Most undergraduate business programs already require that students take a number of courses in arts and sciences fields. So, where is the point of slippage? The Carnegie study found that the root problem lies in the design of the curriculum, which usually has the shape of a barbell. On one end students encounter a weight of business courses, while on the other end they meet a set of liberal arts courses, and the two ends seem independent of each other. Students typically receive little help with the crucial task of connecting what they learn at one end of the barbell with the knowledge and skills available on the other. For business students, who tend to focus very intently on career preparation, the curricular barbell is heavily tilted toward the business education end. The tilt may be accentuated by the fact that core subjects in business, such as accounting and finance, emphasize various forms of analysis, which, while demanding, often present students with problems that have clear, right-or-wrong answers.

By contrast, many of the challenges they'll encounter in today's business world demand the ability to manage significant ambiguity and uncertainty. The arts and sciences disciplines, particularly the humanities, provide intellectual tools for learning how to cope with intellectual complexity and manage ambiguity. But business students, because of their own proclivities and the analytical focus of most courses in their major field, are not likely to find courses in the liberal arts and sciences an antidote to narrowness unless faculty make special efforts toward integration. If business students are to be educated in a way that aligns with the cognitively more complex challenges of global business, such a new kind of business curriculum must take seriously liberal learning, integrating the perspectives of the arts and sciences with students' career preparation.

Cooperative Curriculum

This requires a very different curricular model: less a barbell and more a double helix. Instead of two separate weights that students must lift and balance on their own, the curriculum should guide students through an upward spiral that connects their growing business knowledge and skill with increasingly sophisticated thinking shaped by the arts and sciences. Such a curriculum demands a new level of intentional cooperation between those teaching in business programs and liberal arts fields.

The Carnegie study profiles promising examples of such cooperative curricula: clusters of carefully designed and linked courses that integrate learning in general education and the business major through a focus on themes that cut across traditional disciplines. These new models of incorporating liberal learning into the business curriculum make it more likely that students will see the relevance of that learning for their work and be able to draw on it productively as their careers develop, encouraging them to broaden their approach toward college learning to include the kind of curiosity and integrative thinking characteristic of successful business leaders as well as engaged citizens.

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