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Dean's Corner: In the Conversation About Management Education and the Liberal Arts, the Big Question is, "How?"

January 2014

By Andy Boynton
Dean, Carroll School of Management, Boston College

Thomas Edison was known to remark, "Ah, Shakespeare. That's where you get the ideas!" I'm not exactly sure what he meant by this. I don't know if Edison's pursuit of the incandescent light bulb was somehow inspired by King Claudius's command in Hamlet, "Give me some light!" I have no idea if his thinking about the phonograph was influenced by the mysterious noises that enthralled Caliban in The Tempest.

What's clear is that Edison was fond of analogy and metaphor, as in, "Now is the winter of our discontent" (Richard III). More generally, he placed a high value on diverse learning, according to his biographers Sarah Miller Caldicott (his great-grandniece and co-author) and Michael Gelb (Innovate Like Edison). All of Edison's prospective employees had to take a written test of 150 questions, among them: What is the first line in the Aeneid? Who composed Il Trovatore? What voltage is used on streetcars? Edison demanded scores of 90 percent or better for those who would be initiated into his 'Invention Factory' in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Roughly 140 years after the founding of that research laboratory, those of us who run many of America's undergraduate business schools are only now catching up with Edison. We see the value of exposing our students to the liberal arts, and integrating that kind of broad learning into their management programs. Underscoring this challenge have been studies such as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Professions, issued in 2011 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The authors faulted business schools for often neglecting to cultivate in our students a wider grasp of the world, a willingness to question assumptions, and the ability to think creatively, noting that "business majors typically experience the liberal arts and sciences in ways that are weak or episodic."

The advice is well taken, but the real question is, to put it plainly: How are we supposed to do this? As a strategy professor, I've often told students that strategy is about two things: choice and execution. We can make the choice to connect our management programs more closely with the wider offerings of the liberal arts, but we also need to execute a viable strategy.

At Boston College's Carroll School of Management, we have been pursuing this conscious strategy for some years. And while I don't present it as a model for all kinds of schools, what we have done has worked for us, as a national research university rooted in the centuries-old tradition of Jesuit liberal arts learning. Our initiative is designed to expand an already large liberal arts footprint—one in which requirements in the humanities and sciences make up over a third of the coursework by all undergraduates, including management students. Our strategy builds on a core that may not be typical of every institution, but there are, however, basic elements of our approach that could be instructive to almost anyone grappling with these questions.

Get Them Early

Help students begin building a bridge between liberal arts and management education right away. All 575 of our first-year students take sections of a three-credit fall class, Portico, taught by a multidisciplinary faculty. We instituted this required course five years ago, before undertaking a wider revision of our core curriculum (more about that in a moment). Portico situates contemporary business in a larger context that draws on global, historical, philosophical, and ethical perspectives.

The students not only examine case studies (for example, the organizational structure and business operations of Apple Inc.), but also dive into classics such as Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics along with works by Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, et al. They may read Machiavelli's The Prince, with its instructions on the art of acquiring power, and then complement it with a Wall Street Journal article about workplace bullying. Excursions into Boston are another feature of Portico, where students visit notable business landmarks including one notorious one: the former offices of pyramid-schemer Charles Ponzi.

There are 30 sections of the class with fewer than 20 students in each (they also come together in two large groups for guest lectures one night a week). At the first meeting, Portico students literally and figuratively dissect a smartphone. They consider the cell phone as an assembled, manufactured product, partly from the standpoints of technology and markets. Then, they zero in on other dimensions including the labor conditions under which the components of made, and the capacity of mobile technology to aid developing nations. The students reflect again on the cell phone after further reading and a few more sessions.

Help Students Craft a Liberal Arts Plan

Getting students early also means encouraging them to think about their academic priorities going forward. For our students, this effort also begins with Portico.

Throughout the course, students gradually fill out an online Excel document titled 'Carroll School Course Planning Sheet.' In the middle of the sheet are boxes for the following seven semesters, each with lines on which to write the titles of courses they'd like to take. In the margins are more boxes listing available options, broken down according to school requirements, university requirements, management concentrations, and electives in the College of Arts and Sciences. There is nothing binding about this exercise. It is a tool for students to reflect on future coursework, and while not geared exclusively to the liberal arts, it takes place in the midst of their fall-semester look at management through a liberal arts lens. Academic advising helps guide the reflection.

Shrink the Management Curriculum

Three years after making Portico a requirement for all freshmen, we inaugurated broader changes in our core curriculum, making it easier for management students to spend more time at the College of Arts and Sciences.

For example, students are able to opt out of one or two management requirements if they declare a minor or major in arts and sciences (known at Boston College as A&S). So, a finance student with a math major might leave aside operations management and organizational behavior; an information systems student with an art history major could do the same with finance and managerial accounting. Similarly, those minoring in an arts and sciences subject can pass up one requirement in the management curriculum if they choose. Aside from these incentives, we require all of our students to take four elective courses at A&S (one more than previously stipulated); we also ended the practice of applying Advanced Placement Credits to this total.

In effect, we are shrinking the management curriculum—scaling back the requirements for students who want to dig deeper into the liberal arts. Needless to say, management faculty might not be naturally disposed to such a plan. I'm grateful that our faculty agreed it is more important for a management student to pursue a passion in biology than take our course in marketing (to cite one such tradeoff).

At the Carroll School, we are looking for additional ways to allow and encourage students to explore subjects at the liberal arts college, while discussing with leaders of that college how we could further open up Carroll School courses to their students. Approximately 35 percent of our management students are now majoring or minoring through A&S—a figure we would like to increase to 60 percent within the next three years. The overriding goal is to help our students avoid tunnel vision by striking a balance between the laser focus they have on their careers, and their desire for a richer learning experience.

In this thrust, we will have to constantly assess our strategy and make sure all aspects of the school are supporting the strategy, but the three elements discussed here are likely to remain. We'll keep trying to reach students at the beginning of their college experience, help them devise a four-year plan of studies with an eye to the liberal arts, and be prepared to surrender some of our academic turf in the interest of broader learning.

Andy Boynton
Dean, Carroll School of Management, Boston College

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