The Academy And Business Education

Just when you think you have it all together, wham, somebody puts a little crimp in your get-a-long. A recent situation had me question my abilities, and myself, so much that I lost a little sleep last night. But now it is a new day and new challenges. However, this event did provide fodder for thinking about the relationship of the Academy and the teaching of Business.

William Sullivan in his excellent book, Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, identifies the starting point for Business education in U.S. universities as 1881. Joseph Wharton, founder of the Philadelphia Quaker Steel and Nickel Company, provided a large gift to the University of Pennsylvania “to establish a new kind of school for undergraduates alongside existing departments and disciplines” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 34). His goal was “to replace the ad hoc nature of on-the-job business training with systematic cultivation of a perspective that would combine courses in the knowledge and arts of modern finance and economy with the broadening effects of the liberal arts.”

I had read this book in 2011, and am now revisiting it to ensure I am providing the best possible education for my students. Over the last few years I have been studying entrepreneurship resulting in classroom settings that were less theoretical and more practical. In other words, what do students need from a practical standpoint? However, I think I may have moved a bit too far in that direction.

I don’t want anyone to think that I am minimizing the social trusteeship associated with business education. I was trying to give the students what they would need to be successful in the real world, while maybe, minimally of course, forgetting about the original idea behind business education. “The idea was to replace the original robber barons’ swashbuckling, sometimes bloody competitive drive toward monopoly with a more civilized form of enterprise, still innovative but responsive to the needs of the company’s workers and the larger society” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 36).

Over the years, though, a tension between the Academy and Business education providers emerged. Abraham Flexner, a graduate of John Hopkins, in 1930 urged a reform in medical education that “grounded practice in scientific research,” but “sharply attacked the inclusion of business in the university. Flexner’s argument was based in an assumption that business is done for its own “advantage,” and not for a noble purpose like law, medicine, and teaching.

Flexner argued “that because business fields neither generated nor taught independent knowledge of their own, undergraduate schools of commerce or business such as those at universities like Chicago or Columbia were poor substitutes for a sound general college education and in the long run would seem likely to be of little importance even from a vocational point of view” (Flexner, 1930, p. 162).

I have wrestled with this same philosophy in my short stay in academia, and have concluded, and will argue until the day I retire, that the teaching of business within the academy is the only place it should be taught. I want to ask you a question, what is business? Merriam-Webster defines business as “the activity of making, buying, and selling goods or services. Hmm, I would say that every organization on this planet does something like that. Even a non-profit organization has to sell its services to a donor or grantor. Businesses are not just run for its own advantages, it must meet the needs of a customer. If it doesn’t then it won’t be around very long.

The relationship between the Academy and Business has unnecessarily been adversarial. In fact, business should be taught within the Academy. However, the academy must recognize that Business must be both theoretical and practical. Obviously accounting, finance, and management have very practical applications, but there is also a theoretical side, which is what Business educators need to remember.

Instead of fighting one another, lets leverage the relationship between the Academy and Business educators to create opportunities for students to have the tools they need to succeed in running the organizations at which they are employed. This means giving “our students” skills in writing, thinking, communicating, as well as decision-making and numbers. Teaching business within the Academy is critical for well run organizations of all types.

And that is my thought for the day!


2 thoughts on “The Academy And Business Education

  1. Roger,
    Thank you for purposeful self-examination in regard to teaching. The French literary theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes, following Freud on psychoanalysis, said that teaching is an impossible profession. As an art, teaching is marked by equally large amounts of urgency and humility.

    Thank you also for the post and the material it provides for chewing over the relationship between the academy and business. Unfortunately, I do not know Sullivan’s book; and I wonder how he, Wharton and you would gauge for our time “… the broadening effects of the liberal arts.” Are there swashbuckling robber baron’s of one form or another in our time so that the or a primary goal is to replace them toward achieving a more civilized form of enterprise? Would you, Sullivan, and Wharton see a different need in the business world today the correct response to which being ‘…the broadening effects of the liberal arts’?

    I do not question the worth of the broadening effect that can be the outcome of student learning during college – in the classroom and beyond it. I do wonder whether we miss an important aspect of liberal arts learning when we think first and most often about the broadening effect?

    To try to illustrate, consider your quoting M-W’s definition of ‘business’ and then commenting: ‘I would say that every organization on this planet does something like that. Even a non-profit organization has to sell its services to a donor or grantor.’ No doubt an undergraduate student of business recognizes, with little need for reflection, what you intend by the word ‘sell’ in the last sentence. And what if said student encountered and engaged with an undergraduate student of philosophy or history or literature (better the same student of business attends to such disciplines as no less a contributor to her college learning as such) where, given the frame of one of the latter, the use of ‘sell’ lights up differently? I’m going to sell you why Plato (with his Academy) had no other option than to do what he did in response to the death of his teacher, Socrates. I (and so the Academy of which I am a part) am going to sell you Ursula Le Guin’s view of writing science fiction. What is gained or lost when we use ‘sell’ as integral to the description: ‘every organization on this planet does something like that.’ ? If I say every business on this planet tries to persuade or change the sensibilities of those who ‘need’ or ‘want’ its goods or services, are those terms equivalent to ‘sell’ ?

    Put more concisely, the broadening that is an important goal of liberal arts higher learning is best realized by way of an encounter, a coming up against, different ways of seeing the world and those in it.
    Thanks for reading and

    Happy New Year

  2. Terry,
    Great comments! I have appreciated our conversations at school, and now an opportunity to discuss the relationship of liberal arts and business. As I read your comments I focused on two words liberal and sell. First let me d eal with the word sell. I may have chosen an unfortunate word to convey my meaning. My point is that all organization do something. They have a product or service they provide, and as such, require the need to convince people to use their product or service. Convincing means communication, but it all means the involving of an ethical process for convincing.

    The robber barons of the past practiced caveat emptor as a business philosophy, at least that is the assumption associated with a descriptor like “robber baron.” Thus, a more ethical process of business is critical in this modern era.

    I am reading Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why,” and I am encouraged to continue to explore the why of teaching business at Warner Pacific. The why must be different for us as an institution because we are different than other institutions. This leads me to the second word, liberal.In an earlier blog I explore the classical definition of liberal, at least as it has emerged from the writings of several different philosophers, which is your area of expertise. .

    Liberal is a word that seems to have a plethora of meanings depending on your world view. The question then becomes, what was my intended meaning? Especially it light of my point about the robber barons. If social liberalism, which seeks a balance between individualism and social justice, is Warner Pacific’s philosophical foundation, and in my opinion is congruent with our Theology, then it seems to me that as we teach business at Warner Pacific we need to focus on the fiduciary responsibility of management to seek this balance between economic exploitation and individual value. Thus rejecting the earlier philosophy of the robber barons of the past.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts on your post. I really appreciate the challenge you always bring to the table. It always motivates me to think and write in deeper ways.

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