Columns

Taking Sides: Should Brown have a business degree?

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Opinions Columnists
Friday, April 5, 2013

Yes:

Brown is not the Wharton School of Business, nor does the administration want Brown to emulate Wharton — but our college should rethink this decision. Having transferred from Wharton, I know what makes an undergraduate business program, the advantages of this experience and the drawbacks borne by a more tailored education. In its quest to maintain the integrity of Brown’s liberal arts ethos, the University has shunned pre-professionalism and patent attempts to move toward such an approach.

But Brown is also distinguished by its progressive attitude and willingness to accept change in the face of increasing workplace complexities, evolving scholastic needs and malleable student preferences. A business degree is not solely practical for aspiring investment bankers and corporate raiders. Given the robust interest in entrepreneurship at Brown, the utility of understanding corporations that surround us and the growing competition in the labor market, Brown should furnish its offerings with a business degree.

Among the arguments against undergraduate business education — and pre-professionalism in general — is the contention that students should spend their college careers becoming well-rounded scholars. Stalwart defenders of strict liberal arts curricula believe these four years should give us a broad understanding of many disciplines while allowing us to cultivate specialized knowledge through one or two majors. In their support of this philosophy and a rejection of more career-driven paths, they feel that a solid grasp of several subject areas is compromised by committing to a pre-professional track. This is not true — many undergraduate business programs require students to enroll in classes unrelated to their majors. At Penn, for example, Whartonites must also take a healthy dose of School of Arts and Sciences courses. Furthermore, business education is fundamental to being a well-educated individual. We should know how the organizations around us function, whether they be hospitals, non-profits, corporate conglomerates, retail franchises or even universities such as Brown itself.

Accessing actual business professors and classes through which students can learn more about investment choices, capital budgeting and management decisions does not attenuate one’s understanding of the world. On the contrary, these opportunities and outlets would enhance our wisdom and abilities to digest and analyze current affairs. Even humanities concentrators should understand the mechanics of quantitative easing and incipient implications for future interest rates. For the sake of personal edification, Brown students would be well-served to familiarize themselves with accounting, financial markets, corporate law and firm behavior. These skill sets should be tested in contexts more structured and practical than economic theory classes. Whether we proceed to finance, law, medicine, engineering, charity or the arts, supporting business education with a business degree would reinforce Brown’s reputation for embracing students’ needs and producing adaptable, well-rounded alums.

Elizabeth Fuerbacher ’14 enjoys Brown but will always defend the Wharton stereotype of hyper-ambitious undergrads hoping to be the next Carl Icahn or Donald Trump. She can be reached at Elizabeth_Fuerbacher@Brown.edu.

 

No:

In this time of heightened anxiety arising from a precarious job market, many push for undergraduate institutions to offer degrees that will better prepare them for a seemingly unforgiving real world. But an undergraduate business degree not only runs antithetical to a liberal arts education but also does not adequately impart the necessary critical thinking skills and open-mindedness to prepare Brown students for life beyond College Hill.

The University has established its goals for a Brown education in what it calls “Liberal Learning at Brown.” This criterion was established for students to realize that studying any academic discipline can convey invaluable skills best understood only in the undergraduate college environment. From neuroscience to comparative literature, every concentration at Brown allows students to gain knowledge unattainable at times other than during undergraduate studies.

These goals simply cannot be achieved with an undergraduate business degree. The ability to comprehend different worldviews, embrace diversity and engage with what the University deems “symbolic languages” are essential experiences that a business degree cannot offer.

My opponent and others argue that regardless of any administration-determined academic goals, a business degree better prepares you for the workforce. This is fundamentally wrong. A business concentration’s narrow scope precludes students from learning the breadth of communication, analytics and other skills truly necessary for life in favor of teaching them subjects that are often best learned on the job. A 2009 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed that the skills workplaces value most are best obtained through a liberal arts education. Moreover, it is not the responsibility of an undergraduate institution to train students for specific jobs — that would be vocational training.

Brown has the responsibility to encourage students to study disciplines that will cause us to think in ways applicable to any career area — this is evidenced by, for example, the success of physics concentrators on Wall Street. A liberal arts institution, through its academic concentrations, teaches students general yet essential skills that can be used in any job, graduate school or career. That is the definition of preparing students for life after college.

A concentration in business is a pre-professional degree that puts blinders on one’s undergraduate experience. It only provides skills that are narrow in scope and inapplicable to the plethora of career paths Brown graduates pursue. A business concentration encourages students to make huge life decisions before graduating college while mistakenly absolving them from fulfilling the goals for a liberal education that teach communication, cultural sensitivity and intellectual curiosity. If one cannot balance a checkbook without a business degree, that is another issue.

Zach Ingber ’15 is a history concentrator who thinks he would be well suited to work for a start-up, though potential employers might have to deal with an occasional rant about the Soviet Union. He can be reached at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.

 

Ingber’s rebuttal:

Fuerbacher ’14 offers several benefits of an undergraduate business degree, such as financial literacy and investment knowledge. But she fails to explain why business should be a concentration. All of the aforementioned expertise can be gained by reading the Wall Street Journal or conversing with educated professors. Fuerbacher has not met her burden of proving what unique skills a business degree offers that cannot be gained through a liberal arts education. Comprehension of markets can be strengthened by POLS 1415: “Classics of the Political Economy” or ECON 1720: “Corporate Finance.” Fuerbacher does not describe any unique features of a business degree that justify introducing a narrow, pre-professional degree.

My peer’s argument actually reinforces my assertion that a business degree and Brown’s philosophy cannot coexist. Her comparison to the Wharton School explains that Wharton requires students to take classes in disciplines outside of business. Brown prides itself on the Open Curriculum, and any concentration that would require classes outside the discipline to counterbalance its limited scope runs counter to what the Brown education stands for. A business major would be akin to someone concentrating in “pre-med” or “pre-law,” pre-professional constructs that should not constitute an academic degree.

Learning why the Federal Reserve purchases treasuries is important but does not justify a business concentration. I ask Fuerbacher: What skills can a business degree impart that are generally applicable to myriad fields? Learning how to invest money is certainly an important skill, but so is balancing a checkbook. A Brown education does more than teach competence at various tasks.

Fuerbacher is correct about one thing: Brown has no desire to become Wharton. A business degree has no place at Brown. It is incompatible with Brown’s academic philosophy and educational goals. I don’t feel that I need a business degree to become the next Carl Icahn. Apparently, neither did he. Icahn graduated with a degree in philosophy.

Fuerbacher’s rebuttal:

To clarify sweeping assumptions about business education, Brown would not become a haven for strictly focused students were our university to offer a bachelor’s degree in business. We would merely furnish students with another set of core classes and engaging electives. Ingber ’15 writes that a business degree “provides skills that are narrow in scope and not applicable to the plethora of career paths Brown graduates pursue.” This incorrectly implies a restricted applicability of such coursework and conveys a misunderstanding of what undergraduate business education can provide.

As my opponent noted, Brown alums pursue many different professional paths. In this startup-obsessed era, entrepreneurship attracts student interest. Whether socially driven or technology-focused, a desire to establish one’s own business or initiative is a prevailing sentiment on campus. Sound management principles, knowledge of capital budgeting and business strategy are important concepts for our students to grasp at the start of their journeys. One might argue our economics concentration or entrepreneurship courses satisfy this need, but hiring business education faculty members would corroborate preparation available to students.

It would be complacent to suggest we neither need nor desire pre-professional coursework because we succeed in internship and career quests. Our robust creativity and deep intellectual capacities should be cultivated through more technical training. It is a shame when employers at banking or consulting information sessions caution, “We don’t expect Brown students to know much about stocks,” or “People from Wharton and Stern know much more than you, so study up before interviewing.” Why not shatter these expectations by having classes that communicate this information? To conclude that pre-professional education and the ability to digest many facets of the world are mutually exclusive is misguided. A business degree would enhance students’ knowledge and allow us to use practical classes to achieve our post-graduation goals.

  • JP Prag

    As someone who went to a business school and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration Magna Cum Laude, I was insulted by Mr. Ingber’s assertions that “[t]he ability to comprehend different worldviews, embrace diversity and engage with what the University deems ‘symbolic languages’ are essential experiences that a business degree cannot offer” and “[a] business concentration’s narrow scope precludes students from learning the breadth of communication, analytics and other skills truly necessary for life in favor of teaching them subjects that are often best learned on the job”.

    Ms. Fuerbacher correctly points out that this is a grave misunderstanding of what a “business education” is, and an incredibly biased and stereotypical view of what Mr. Ingber considers a “business person”. Mr. Ingber has decided that all business people and therefore all business education is narrow-minded and focused on goals of investment and making themselves rich. This could not be further from the truth.

    My well-rounded business education experience (not even including the required “liberal arts” portion) was multi-disciplined, varied in approach and viewpoints, and enlightening in all aspects of life. Graduates from my school did not just go on to be Wall Street investors, but became teachers, doctors, scientists, fashion designers, pro-wrestling promoters, farmers, chefs, and much more. Yes, many did go on to be deep in the world of business, myself included. However, my job is an architect of financial systems. My business education helped me understand the finance, accounting, operations, organizational behavior, and many other facets of companies that I need every day, but I also use skills in the technical and psychological fields–ones not directly related to my business education that I learned on my own or through further liberal arts education. In other words, I learned some “liberal arts” skills outside of college and on the job, while I learned some “job skills” while in college. Who says you should learn a type of skill or knowledge at a particular time in life?

    The bottom line is: business education does not preclude one from being a well-rounded person. If Brown is so open and truly wants to “embrace diversity”, then would not bringing in a different viewpoint (IE business-minded people) achieve that goal? Offering business education as an *option* does not preclude Brown from achieving any of those goals that Mr. Ingber has stated. For those not interested in business education, they will not have to take any classes. For those that want business degrees, the courses will be available to them. And for those that are simply curious and want to be more well rounded individuals, they can mix in business classes as they desire.

    Now, as for why someone should even go to college and spend $50,000 a year for a general education when they have no idea what they may even want out of life–that is an argument for another day. Just ask yourself if higher education/vocational training should be used as a placeholder while you try to find yourself, or as a stepping stone to wherever you want to end up in life?

    • Comp. lit major

      I think you mischaracterize Ingber’s argument. His argument has nothing to do with accusing all “business” people to go to Wall street. In fact he says that not all engineers become engineers…

      he is not suggesting that those with business degrees are not intelligent, but rather a business degree on its own cannot accomplish the liberal learning goals BRown has established. Should pre-med also be a major?

      It seems by your last paragraph that you fundamentally disagree with a liberal arts education. Brown is not going anywhere.

      • JP Prag

        Who is suggesting that Brown go anywhere? All I said was that “business” does not have to be learned on the job and “liberal arts” does not have to be learned in college. Either could be learned at any given point where appropriate. But I do disagree that a business degree cannot accomplish what you describe as liberal learning goals on its own. Business is an art those flows across many disciplines and meets the criteria set out in the article. The lack of understanding of what is a “business education” seems to be the issue here as if it is somehow in conflict with all other types of education. If you can specialize in literature, he can specialize in history, why cannot I specialize in business in the same environment?

        If there is a desire among students for other disciplines of learning, whatever that discipline may be, what restrictions are there at Brown that preclude that? If Brown is a general education facility, then would it not be feasible to branch out into other areas of learning?

        As for my last comment, I do not disagree with liberal arts education. I disagree with the idea that all people should go to college right after high school and start their higher education process. You should enter college with some direction, some idea of what you want to learn. I’m not saying that you cannot change direction, but at least something to make the experience more beneficial. And if you are not ready with a direction, then start later when you are more equipped, or don’t go at all. There are plenty of other paths in life that require other types of education and experiences.

  • BizKid

    Ingber’s comments are misleading and, in some cases, just wrong. You can’t learn capital budgeting, Pro Forma, or risk management by reading the WSJ or talking with professors. If you try, you will fail. Also, nobody is coercing students to pursue an undergraduate business degree. I fail to see how offering students the choice to pursue business classes in the Open Curriculum runs “antithetical” to Brown’s ethos. There’s clearly existing demand for such classes as most financial ENGN courses are near full enrollment. Should we now criticize PLME in the same way because, in your narrow-minded view, it’s “vocational?”

    If you don’t think liberal arts and an undergraduate business program can co-exist, you haven’t spoken with enough Wharton students. I know several with interests in music, natural sciences, and other subject areas who pursue them concurrently with a Wharton education. Obviously, Brown doesn’t want to become Wharton; however, enriching student choice with businesses classes has limited downside risk and would fill a hole that’s currently bandaged by engineering professors.

    • Brown Student

      Something that I believe that strong proponents (and based on her articles, Elizabeth as well) struggle to understand is the difference between the need for a business degree and the need to be marketable. Unfortunately, I still believe that comparing Brown’s biz program to Wharton’s is comparing two different leagues. Wharton’s finance program offers classes in “Private Buyout” and “Venture Capital,” while the only “finance” classes consistently offered at Brown are Corporate Finance, Investments I, and (sometimes) Fixed Income Securities. As someone who has worked in finance, I have noticed that companies will hire liberal arts students, but it does help to have a quantitative background. BEO on its own would not provide that. That is why you see lots of STEM majors (especially math and CS) branching over to quant work after graduation. They showed the aptitude for being able to handle high learning curves, and (hopefully) also showed that they have a personality. At the end of the day, trainable 20-something year olds with a track record for academic success and aptitude will generally set themselves nicely for post-grad employment. Just sitting through some watered down “business” sequences (which is essentially the econ requirements, some finance classes that aren’t easy to pass — as a former enrollee in Investments I/II and Corporate Finance), and some easy-A sociology classes that non-business students frequent for an easier workload. While I do believe that BEO is making amazing strides for students interested in entrepreneurship, I would not say that it is necessary to leverage students towards other careers.