Professor Jeffrey Nesteruk describes the way F&M teaches business as “the relentless pragmatism of business and the critical spirit of liberal inquiry.” The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching identifies it as an outlier. The Teagle Foundation sees it as worthy of investment.
It sounds logical enough to pair the innovative, cross-disciplinary thinking of a liberal arts education with the immutable realities of business—a discipline that craves innovation and transcends borders, cultures and currencies. Why do so few institutions teach it that way?
At many colleges and universities, the business of undergraduate business education is all business; learning is regimented and often focused within the silos of management, marketing, accounting and finance. Critics of the traditional, narrow-gauge undergraduate business major say it no longer serves the best interests of students, employers or society at large, failing to teach the intellectual agility and cultural sensitivity necessary to meet the complexities of an increasingly globalized environment changing at a supersonic pace. According to a 2011 Carnegie Foundation report, undergraduate business education “fails to challenge students to question assumptions, think creatively or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts.”
Jeffrey Nesteruk, professor of legal studies in the F&M’s Department of Business, Organizations & Society (BOS) and its former chair, believes liberal arts institutions are the perfect solution to those concerns. “I think it is a serious mistake to see business and the liberal arts as two entirely separate and diametrically opposed realms. The more I look at it, the more I see they share. Each can call the status quo into question; each rewards innovation; and each seeks some deeper understanding of the insights that enable progress.”
This perspective on the relationship between business and the liberal arts informed the development of the current BOS major, which emerged a decade ago from a business administration major that had tracks in accounting and management. The department’s goal with the new major was to emphasize critical thinking and analysis rather than memorization; encourage alternative approaches to resolving problems; and examine organizational issues from a variety of perspectives, connecting disciplines from the full spectrum of the liberal arts. The department has attracted international attention for its approach to teaching business, most recently as part of a grant project funded by the Teagle Foundation for the reimagination of undergraduate business education.
“We started by asking ourselves: ‘How can we become a better business program because we are at a liberal arts college?” Nesteruk says. “The answer was what we call a blending model: an education that gives rigorous treatments to subjects like finance, marketing, law and accounting while blending it with the kind of critical, creative, complex thinking that is the hallmark of the liberal arts.”
Because of its robust curricular blend of business and liberal arts, the BOS major has come to be seen as a bellwether, drawing the attention in recent years of several leading national and international institutions of higher learning. It wasn’t long after the BOS transformation began that it caught the eye of a team of scholars from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who were studying how a strong liberal arts education could benefit business undergrads. William M. Sullivan, now a senior scholar at The New American Colleges and Universities, says he and his Carnegie colleagues looked at the descriptions of about 3,000 undergraduate business programs and winnowed the list down to 400 to 500 schools that talked about linking the liberal arts to business. They further refined the field to about 50 schools, including F&M.
“We chose F&M because it is a liberal arts college. We were very conscious to include that type of school, and F&M was the best one we could find on paper, and it certainly was true when we visited them,” Sullivan says. The Carnegie team was so impressed with the reimagination of the BOS major that it made F&M one of a handful of project sites for the Carnegie-sponsored Business, Entrepreneurship and Liberal Learning (BELL) project. The three-year BELL study culminated in the 2011 publication of the book co-authored by Sullivan titled “Rethinking Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession.”
Carnegie’s endorsement prompted attention from the Aspen Institute, a non-profit forum that gathers “diverse, nonpartisan thought leaders, creatives, scholars and members of the public to address some of the world’s most complex problems.” The institute invited F&M to join its Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, which since 2012 has convened 65 colleges and universities in a dialogue around advancing a more humanistic business education.
“Our role is to connect faculty and deans who are doing truly innovative work in this space, like those at F&M, and to provide a forum for them to learn from one another,” says Claire Preisser, associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. “Much of this work depends on faculty collaborating with one another across disciplines or faculty and deans thinking quite differently about the kinds of capacities they want to develop in students. These are big changes.”
The latest acknowledgment of the leading national role F&M is playing in the reimagination of undergraduate business education was Teagle Foundation’s recent grant of $280,000 to continue the College’s work linking business education with the liberal arts. Through the three-year project, F&M will collaborate with the business programs of the University of Pennsylvania and Bucknell University. They will produce a toolkit that combines ideas, pedagogical techniques, new courses and program directions to be used by colleges and universities developing stronger ties between business and liberal arts.
In addition, F&M received a $50,000 gift from alumnus Howard Jamner ’77, a retired business owner who regards liberal learning as critical for success. The gift defrayed travel expenses of F&M faculty who participated in or gave presentations during a four-day series of workshops, lectures and demonstrations on reimagining business education at the Copenhagen Business School, one of the world’s top universities for business and management.
F&M was one of only four U.S. colleges and universities invited to the summer 2016 conference that explored creative ways to integrate business and liberal arts curricula. F&M faculty will return to Copenhagen in 2017 and 2018, says Nesteruk, who is leading the Teagle grant’s implementation at F&M.
The national and international recognition of the BOS major is especially valuable when parents of BOS majors express concerns that their students may not be getting enough hard-edged, utilitarian business skills. “Parents can be concerned about business skills development and the latest business buzzwords. But when your program has the seal of approval from the Carnegie Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the Teagle Foundation and other organizations, that conversation goes very well,” says Jeffrey Podoshen, associate professor of marketing. “We have become the benchmark for many other business programs.”
Podoshen enjoys helping students make connections between business and a wide range disciplines. A few years ago he invited Brenda Segal ’12, a joint major in psychology and women’s and gender studies, to study male/female consumer habits through a Hackman Scholars project. “I was looking for someone who was interested in both gender studies and psychological issues related to business,” he says.
Segal and Podoshen examined gender differences in materialism, conspicuous consumption, impulse buying and brand loyalty. They found that men are indeed more materialistic, but they were surprised to discover men also conspicuously consume more than women. Their work resulted in a peer-reviewed study, “An Examination of Materialism, Conspicuous Consumption and Gender Differences,” published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies.
“I entered as a psychology major until my junior year, when I enrolled in a women’s and gender studies class on a whim. It absolutely changed my life,” Segal says. “This led to my research with Professor Podoshen, which was the pinnacle of a multidisciplinary approach.”
Podoshen is also taking advantage of the Teagle grant through a collaboration with Alison Kibler, professor of American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Kibler spoke to Podoshen’s students this fall about feminist approaches to advertising. In the spring semester, Podoshen plans to speak to one of Kibler’s classes on gender and advertising. They also are developing a syllabus about gender and advertising that could serve as the basis of a directed reading for students.
“With a grant like the Teagle, professors come together who normally don’t work together,” Kibler says. “I learn more about the BOS program and what Jeff is doing, as well as the underlying assumptions of the work he is reading and the work that he has produced himself.”
In what might strike some as an improbable collaboration, BOS chair Bryan Stinchfield is teaming up with Pamela Vail, associate professor of dance. “It doesn’t sound like an immediate fit. But there are some very interesting connections,” says Stinchfield, associate professor of organization studies. “I am interested in sustainability and entrepreneurship and see the need to stimulate creativity and improvisation in business students. We need more creative solutions to solve bigger problems.”
In the Teagle-inspired pas de deux slated for 2018, Stinchfield will speak to Vail’s improvisational dance students about entrepreneurship, regarded by many as an exercise in improvisation. Students in his class will be introduced by Vail to some form of improvisational dance.
The Teagle grant also encourages pedagogical cross-fertilization. Laura Shelton, assistant professor of history, used a simulation exercise in a history class she taught in the fall on commodities and commerce in Latin America. Simulations, which use real-world contexts to reinforce student learning, are more commonly used in business classes. But to encourage critical thinking, she used a simulation based on the transition that planters and farmers in northeast Brazil made from sugar plantations to cacao.
Because of their passion for cross-disciplinary approaches, Shelton and Timothy Sipe, associate professor of biology, were enlisted by Nesteruk to help him lead the Teagle-funded programming. The three also direct F&M’s work with the Aspen Institute, with Nesteruk serving on Aspen’s Undergraduate Business Education Consortium advisory board.
Sipe, a forest ecologist who also teaches nature writing, shares Shelton’s strong cross-disciplinary bent. “I learned early on that the boundaries we erect in academia between divisions and departments often do not serve us well. There comes a time when you have to see across those fences. Otherwise, you don’t get the full picture of the world.”
Sipe is not formally participating in a Teagle-funded collaboration, but he is lending his perspective of a natural scientist to the continuing evolution of the BOS major and the Science, Commerce and Liberal Education initiative. He says he watched from afar as BOS underwent its remarkable transformation.
“A liberal education is valuable for any student because wherever they go, it’s pretty hard not to have your world view changed by your experience at F&M,” he says. “You just don’t think the same or see the world the same. The student will have a different outlook on life and a different outlook on work.”
“I learned early on that the boundaries we erect in academia between divisions and departments often do not serve us well. There comes a time when you have to see across those fences. Otherwise, you don’t get the full picture of the world.”
Thinking Through Multiple Frames
Short stories depicting a dystopian world in which the human species is barely recognizable might seem like an unappetizing entree for a course on the business of food.
But the satirical science-fiction pieces—intended to be provocative—are one of the five touchpoints for students in two separate classes taught by Nancy Kurland of BOS and Judith Mueller of English, who are collaborating this fall through the Teagle grant.
Kurland, associate professor of organization studies, taught “The Business of Food,” part of the Connections curriculum designed to introduce first-year students to the world of F&M. Conveniently, during the same class period, Mueller taught her advanced class titled “The End of Nature?: Literature of Anthropocene.” (The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch of the Earth’s most recent time marked by the profound impact of humans.)
“Through the exaggerations, distortions and humor of satire in the short stories, Nancy’s students thought about the Anthropocene from a whole different angle,” Mueller says. The shared experiences for the separate classes included a studio session in which students thought about the business of food from the perspectives of farmers, consumers, government officials and the natural environment.
The studio exercise was an example of multiple framing, which can include the legal, ethical, political or international perspectives of an issue; it’s a core element of the BOS program and aims to develop more reflective students.
Mueller’s contributions to the class were invaluable, says Kurland. “As an English professor, Judith knows how to do close readings that helped us examine sources in ways I may not have seen myself,” she says.