Business and Liberal-Arts Professors Discuss How to Improve the Business Major

March 19, 2012

Lewis A. Litteral held up two bottles of water and asked a series of questions of a room full of faculty members and administrators here Monday.

"Where does it come from?" asked Mr. Litteral, an associate professor and chair of the management department at the University of Richmond's Robins School of Business. "How much does it cost? Is it better than tap water? Why is it here?"

After being given three minutes to write their answers, the attendees offered a range of views: The bottles were bad for the environment because they often offered little more than tap water, and were made with petroleum-based products; but for shareholders, they were good because the profits for water could be higher per ounce than for soft drinks; and for workers they conferred a benefit because they created jobs.

Mr. Litteral's demonstration offered a glimpse of his first-year seminar "Water: Economics, Politics, and Policy," and was meant to show how faculty members in business disciplines can teach courses by calling upon the traditions and ways of thinking fostered by the liberal arts.

The demonstration took place during a two-day session organized by the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program, which brought together nearly 100 deans and professors from business schools and liberal-arts departments from across the country. The meeting is part of a broader effort to better integrate the liberal arts and sciences into undergraduate business education, and it jumps off from ideas put forth in the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

The book argues for literature, history, the social sciences, science, and mathematics to be more fully woven into the undergraduate business major. Its three main authors, Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, and William M. Sullivan, helped shape and facilitate Monday's event, held at George Washington University.

While business remains the most popular college major, higher-education leaders and deans of business schools, like those attending the sessions on Monday, want to boost the rigor of most business courses offered today. They also want to improve the ability of graduates of these programs to think in more nuanced ways and from multiple perspectives.

Concerns about the academic demands of the business major have grown more acute in recent years, particularly after the release last year of the book Academically Adrift and of other surveys that document that business majors spend less time studying than their peers, and show the weakest gains in writing and reasoning skills during the first two years of college. At the same time, educators want future business leaders to consider the broader implications of their choices on society, and the ethics of the decisions they will face.

"This is a teachable moment where we have a rare confluence of events," said Judith F. Samuelson, executive director of Aspen's business and society program. "There is strong student interest, faculty interest, and recruiter interest" in improving the rigor of the major.

Mr. Litteral's course demonstration was paired with an example of how a faculty member from the liberal arts can bring a new perspective to traditional business courses. Matt Statler, a clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business, led attendees through a shortened exercise distilled from a required course for seniors in professional responsibility and leadership. It is in this course, of all places, where students confront Cicero's arguments about virtue and expedience.

Mr. Statler chose a thorny example from recent events that he uses in class: a complicated and controversial securities transaction called Abacus, which resulted in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and a record $550-million settlement paid by the investment firm Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Statler asked the attendees to assess the ethical decision-making of the main players involved in the controversy, including Paulson & Company Inc., a hedge fund run by John Paulson, and Goldman Sachs.

Attendees took turns arguing whether each of the players in the saga overtly lied, or whether they misled, or simply were not as forthcoming with all the relevant information as they should have been, and how their actions affected their reputations in the long-term.

The conversation took several turns, with Mr. Statler often playing devil's advocate, pushing the attendees to support their arguments and consider whether hindsight might make some of the players in the saga appear more culpable than they may have been when events were unfolding. He also asked attendees whether the Stern School at NYU did the right thing when it accepted a $20-million donation from Mr. Paulson to endow two faculty positions, renovate the building, and support scholarships.

The attendees asked one another, and Mr. Statler, how much he should make a normative argument, and clearly stake out what the acceptable ethical standards are. His goal, he said, was to train students to become more conscious of the values they hold, and to construct a coherent argument that flows from them.