By Ira Solomon
When I was appointed dean of the business school here at Tulane University, I thought it would be helpful to enhance my knowledge of the history of business education.
My research led me to a biography of Joseph Wharton, the prominent Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist who in 1881 donated 100,000 USD to the University of Pennsylvania to establish the world's first collegiate school of business.
While many people are aware of Mr. Wharton's role in the founding of the school that bears his name, few I suspect realize that Mr. Wharton's primary intention was not to educate students so that they could enrich themselves. Rather, Mr. Wharton's goal was to create a school that would produce "pillars of the state," knowledgeable individuals capable of meaningfully addressing—and solving—society's problems.
That noble objective, once at the very core of business education, is one we in academia have largely lost sight of in the last 30 years.
One only has to open the newspaper (or turn on an iPad) to see the critical need for business education and expertise in today's society. Financial literacy is at an all-time low. Government policies relating to immigration, taxation and economic development defy superficial analysis. And while it's difficult to imagine a more significant issue, few of us have the background to properly evaluate the health care reform measures signed into law by President Obama in 2010. How can we have an informed electorate when the electorate is unable to sufficiently digest the issues?
In fact, from the dot-com bust to the Great Recession, recent history has seen a succession of social, political and economic crises, yet despite these historic events, business schools have more often than not sat on the sidelines, failing to substantively participate in the critical debates of the day. At the same time, business school professors have, with few exceptions, done a less than adequate job producing scholarship to explain and elucidate the issues.
This low-visibility posture has an unintended consequence: Many people today tend to view business—and by extension business schools—as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.
I would argue that business schools not only can play a role in addressing contemporary issues, as Joseph Wharton originally intended, but that they have a responsibility to educate socially aware graduates by inculcating them with the knowledge, skills and values to help solve society's most vexing problems. Further, I would suggest that reorienting educational programs to better respond to societal problems should be viewed not as a challenge but rather an opportunity.
In 2006, Tulane University took a bold step toward achieving this vision with the introduction of its renewal plan, a strategy for recovery in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Tulane's subsequent success in the realm of public service offers a striking illustration of how educational institutions can combine research and teaching missions with a meaningful commitment to solving societal problems.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and forced Tulane to cancel classes for the entire fall semester, the university's first closure since the Civil War. In the aftermath of the storm, Tulane University President Scott Cowen recognized that the survival of the university and the recovery of New Orleans depended on one other. Starting with the belief that active civic engagement builds strong, healthy communities and responsible citizens, the renewal plan offered by President Cowen called for the initiation of a public service requirement for all students at the undergraduate level to assist in the city's recovery. In doing so, Tulane University became the first national research institution to integrate public service into its core curriculum for undergraduates.
Tulane's model of service, however, encompasses more than just volunteer work. Tulane emphasizes service learning, which combines academic study with relevant public service in the community, enabling students to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to address real community problems.
Service learning spans all undergraduate schools and disciplines. Public health students, for example, have helped restore a cypress marsh in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, providing residents with an extra line of defense against the next hurricane. Architecture students have designed urban farms to supply residents in so-called food deserts with fresh, healthy produce. Classical studies students have participated in archeological digs in the city's historic French Quarter, assisting in the preservation of precious artifacts. Communications students have produced films on the city's Mardi Gras Indians, helping to document this unique, centuries-old tradition.
Here at the Freeman School, finance students teach financial literacy to public high school students. Management students develop plans to help the city transition to renewable energy. Business law students monitor trials to document and assess the city's criminal justice system. Management communication students teach business fundamentals to elementary school students. And first-year business students go into the community to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or work with mentally disabled individuals.
While the public service requirement was initiated almost out of necessity to support the city's recovery and provide the city with an army of young volunteers, something quite remarkable happened: Applications from prospective undergraduate students increased dramatically. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University has become a national destination for motivated, service-minded young people, and the university's public service requirement has become a model for other universities dealing with natural disasters.
Now, more than six years after the storm, Tulane University is a stronger and more vibrant institution because of—rather than in spite of—its focus on addressing community needs.
That's a message that I think is relevant for collegiate schools of business.
Like Tulane University, business schools need to become more engaged with the communities in which they operate, and they need to make salient to students that while they'll earn a comfortable living after they graduate, they also have a responsibility to use their knowledge and skills to solve societal problems.
My interest in this topic actually goes back a number of years. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I served as head of the Department of Accountancy prior to my current position at Tulane, I helped to establish the Center for Professional Responsibilities in Business and Society, an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to promoting professional responsibility and accountability in individuals and organizations. I also played a role in redesigning the University of Illinois undergraduate accounting curriculum to emphasize professional responsibilities, communication, critical thinking, teamwork and new ideas relating to value generation, concepts essential to preparing graduates to contribute positively to their professions and communities.
In fact, I would most likely still be at Illinois had I been approached by virtually any institution other than Tulane University. In Tulane, however, I saw a university whose mission and values matched my own beliefs and aspirations. I was impressed by the strategic direction of the university under the leadership of President Scott Cowen, and I thought the Freeman School of Business at Tulane was well positioned to move in that direction.
The Freeman School, in fact, is already quite active in the community and has been for quite some time. In addition to our undergraduate service learning courses, we offer a number of programs that enable students to help enhance New Orleans. Since 1993, we have published Burkenroad Reports, an equities-research program that gives students hands-on experience as sell-side analysts while shining a light on local and regional small-cap stocks. Since the program's launch, more than 25 companies followed by our student analysts have been acquired. Our annual Tulane Business Plan Competition is the nation's only business plan competition dedicated to the principles of Conscious Capitalism, which emphasizes the importance for businesses to optimize the alignment of all stakeholders. We also host the Domain Companies New Orleans Entrepreneur Challenge, which awards a cash prize to the business idea judged to have the greatest potential economic impact on the city. Our Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship has been connecting students with local non-profits and small businesses in need of business services for more than 20 years.
While initiatives such as these are impacting the community in a positive way, they tend to be co-curricular programs. Our challenge, and the challenge for business schools across the nation and around the world, is to find new ways to more fully integrate public service into core programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
It simply makes sense. Young people today have a desire to make a positive impact on society, and this generational shift, I would argue, is not limited to the liberal arts and sciences. Business education is essential to solving the most critical challenges of our day, and business students now more than ever are eager to be part of the solution. We just need to empower them to do so.
Devoting our efforts to addressing societal problems and assuring that our educational programs enable students to acquire the knowledge, skills and values to develop creative solutions is, I believe, the highest role for business education, just as Joseph Wharton suggested more than 130 years ago.