By James Fisher
Never really at a loss for critics, the world of higher education seems especially embattled these days. The shelves fairly groan with titles suggesting serious problems with the system. We see, for example, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus pull out all the stops with a title blending sarcasm with a clarion call to action: Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It?
Just this month, The New York Times got in line with these critics to ask some hard questions of our nation’s undergraduate business programs. The account ladled out some stern accusations for all involved in the b-school enterprise:
- Many students lack motivation and therefore just aren’t working hard enough. Some “are skating through B-school” while others compensate by cunningly cultivating access to networks and recruiters that yield a reliable path to post-degree employment
- Professors are dumbing-down courses and giving higher grades in the benighted hope of better student evaluations. Accounting and finance are the least offenders, while management and marketing (my discipline) are the worst.
- Writing and reasoning skills are getting short shrift, while there is likely too much emphasis on group projects and the spoon-feeding of pre-fabricated PowerPoint lectures.
- Administrators are complicit in the erosion of standards as they cynically rely on B-school as the university’s cash-cow (itself a business term). The article notes that business degrees now account for over 20%, or more than 325,000, or all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the US.
So is picking a business major really that bad?
Well, if you expect me to bite the hand that feeds me, you will be disappointed (although you can find a couple of my putative colleagues who do just that in the Times article). You can dismiss my apologia here as hopelessly biased, but on the other hand, I have had over 25-years of teaching experience and about 5-years as a b-school student myself.
I will admit to some truth in the portrait drawn by the critics. Students should deepen their engagement and broaden their participation in the intellectual life of the school. Faculty, for their part, ought to strive to find the ideal mix of rigor and passion and adapt as necessary to the changing contours of business and economic life as well as the exciting prospects for new teaching approaches. Others have called education the “impossible profession” and the enduring challenge can itself provide the restless energy and prospect for transformation that attends the pursuit of learning.
But some truths are only half-truths. Here another side to the b-school story:
- The business community: Individuals, companies and professions are relentlessly supportive of our b-schools and our students. They share of their time, treasure and rich experience. Oh yeah, they also like to hire our students.
- Group work: The Times article pilloried some schools for their reliance on group assignments. It’s true b-schools have a lot of group work—in some instance maybe too much. But of this we are pretty sure: most great learning happens in groups and great doings are similarly collaborative. Embrace it.
- Case studies: These are a staple of the business school curriculum. The best ones are masterpieces of indirection. Students learn inductively from them in a more permanent way. These cases continue to instruct as student go forth from the classroom. Let me tell you a story…
- Diversity: Academics sometimes can foster a narrow conception of intelligence or talent. The study of business will broaden this narrow notion. An old chestnut circulated in b-schools is that the A-students will likely work for the C-students. [My colleagues at the law school have their equivalent: A-students become professors, B-students become judges and C-students become rich.] Business communities with their strict accounting of profits and losses have repeatedly demonstrated that success reflects a diversity of talent much more than any singular conception of ability. More generally diversity generates creativity and innovation and on these business truly depends.
In conclusion, let me offer a tip, a little inside-information on which you may wish to trade. Business school, like much of life, will most likely be different than you expect. Accounting may be harder, statistics easier, and that much-sought-after internship might turn out to be of questionable value.
Some things will disappoint, but others will surpass your expectations. If business suits your inclinations and desires, I’m quite sure more than a few things will amaze and delight. Most of the value and worth of an undergraduate business education will, however, revolve around matters you can powerfully influence, if not completely control. As a business school student, you will need to familiarize yourself with two business principles necessary for success: be alert to opportunity and do not shrink from the prospect of risk or failure.
Nothing in life gets accomplished with a liberal tolerance for failure. You might learn that in business school.
James Fisher is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Saint Louis University’s John Cook School of Business.