Soapbox

October 7, 2011 6:36 pm

Business schools must be wary of short-term myopia

They arrive on our university campuses every fall, a large, diverse cross-section of students from around the world, ready to invest the time and money required to earn an advanced degree.

Since 1980, the most popular choice of degree in the US has been business, accounting for more than 20 per cent of all post-secondary degrees and attracting this generation’s best and brightest.

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But like other business school deans and university leaders in general, I am growing increasingly concerned that our strongest business students and the society that will depend on them are in danger of being short-changed. The notorious narrow, short-term horizon that threatens business is threatening to infect higher education.

An era that places increased emphasis on job placement and giving course credit for unpaid internships, among other things, contributes to growing “vocational” pressure felt by colleges, universities and students. There is also pressure to shorten the time spent at university, for example to award professional masters degrees after one rather than two years of study. This is happening when there is more, rather than less, to learn in preparation for a career.

I understand that these growing pressures come, at least in part, in response to the rising costs of university education, particularly in the US – a concern I share. But this is not the only challenge. Now, more than ever, universities – and business schools in particular – must buck social pressures towards shortened attention spans and quick answers.

Within universities, we need to re-examine our own campus rhetoric that sees professional schools as not central to intellectual life within the academy.

Business is the dominant social institution of our day, creating jobs and moving wealth around the globe, far outstripping the power of governments and NGOs. And, despite the effusive bipartisan rhetoric and retrospective critiques on stimulus spending in the US, it is clear that none of our business and government leaders globally has quick answers to the economic malaise.

If we are going to educate another generation for which business is the most popular post-secondary area of study, we have a social obligation to educate these students to be complex thinkers and responsible citizens.

The challenge here is greater than teaching ethics to business students. We must take civic engagement seriously – a call echoed by the recent Carnegie Foundation report on the condition of undergraduate business education in the US.

This means expanding the intellectual lens of business education in significant and substantive ways. We must educate students to understand the effects that the conduct of business and free markets have on our national and global societies. Our world needs business leaders who comprehend both the power and limits of market-based solutions to social issues; leaders who understand social as well as economic benefits and costs in decision making. We also need students educated about the interface between the public and private sectors.

To do this, we need to re-examine how we orientate students to the study of business – redefining their maps of the world to include a vibrant respect for the role of law and regulation in fostering capitalism’s best successes. We need to move out of the 65-person, 75-minute learning “bowl” experience to engage in longer, small group discussions that foster deeper examination of the assumptions underlying market models. We need to strengthen our ties to discourse on citizenship and bring in respected leaders who can speak convincingly to those responsibilities.

Today there is growing momentum within business schools to prepare students for this broader, long-term orientation. Globally we have seen the damage that can be done by short-term, narrow-interest myopia. Business schools should be preparing our best and brightest to think bravely and reverse this dangerous trend, not perpetuate it.

Sally Blount is dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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