Business Curricula Need a Strong Dose of the Liberal Arts, Scholars Say

January 21, 2010

Undergraduate business programs should be more deeply infused with the virtues of a traditional liberal-arts education, two scholars said here on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"Business programs are often quite effective, but also terribly narrow," said William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, during a panel discussion. Narrow preprofessional programs, he said, do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.

Mr. Sullivan and several colleagues are leading a three-year study of how to revitalize the undergraduate business major, which is the nation's most popular. (More than 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in the 2006-7 academic year were in business. This year's freshmen, however, may be a bit less keen on business degrees, according to a recent survey.)

Colleges often use "what you might call a barbell approach, with a weak connecting bar," Mr. Sullivan said. "In other words, you have business courses on one hand and some sort of liberal-arts distribution requirements on the other. These are taught by different faculty who have little communication with each other, often housed in different schools within the university."

Mr. Sullivan's study, which is formally known as the Business, Entrepreneurship, and Liberal Learning project, involves a close examination of 10 undergraduate programs that have tried to avoid the barbell syndrome by synthesizing business education with the liberal arts.

Models of Integrated Curricula

Even at those programs, Mr. Sullivan said, there is still often a disconnect between business and nonbusiness courses. Students sometimes perceive their liberal-arts courses as irrelevant to their career plans or as generally unserious.

Despite those challenges, the 10 programs do include courses and curricula that are worth emulating, said Anne Colby, who is also a senior scholar at the foundation.

She cited Franklin & Marshall College's department of business, organizations, and society, which emphasizes the sociology of organizations and the history of economic thought.

Ms. Colby also praised a course in professional responsibility and leadership that is required of all seniors in New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

"The course asks students to consider the role of business in society and the ethics of acting as a business professional," she said. "It includes case studies from business, but also classic liberal-arts texts, including Chekhov, Walt Whitman, Confucius, Plato, Cicero, and Machiavelli."

Mr. Sullivan said that while business programs should embrace the liberal arts, it is equally true that liberal-arts programs have things to learn from business and other preprofessional fields.

He said that in visiting the 10 programs in this study, he was sometimes struck by how much stronger the instruction was in business courses than in liberal-arts courses. In business courses, students often actively worked on simulations and other group projects. "When well done, that kind of active learning can be extremely effective," Mr. Sullivan said. "But rarely did the students encounter anything remotely as powerful in their liberal-arts courses."

More broadly, Mr. Sullivan argued that liberal-arts programs should help students cultivate "practical reasoning" and prepare them for the world of work.

"Students need to experience engagement with the world so that they grasp the practical, personal, and moral significance of what they are learning," Ms. Colby and Mr. Sullivan wrote in a recent essay.

Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Colby's project will be summarized in a forthcoming book that is tentatively titled "Preparing for Business, Learning for Life: Liberal Arts and Undergraduate Business Education." The foundation expects to publish the book in 2011.