What’s the Matter With Business at Liberal Arts Colleges?

What’s the Matter With Business at Liberal Arts Colleges?

Why business courses belong in these schools

I am a bit perplexed. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get many listeners on the subject of the need for liberal arts colleges to offer a minor in business and entrepreneurship. Over the past month, I wrote to the presidents at four of the top liberal arts colleges in the U.S. about the possibility of this idea. One kindly responded right away, acknowledging that it may be worthwhile, but due to financial issues, no new programs were being introduced.

Why am I fixated on liberal arts colleges introducing business courses? Articles in Business Week, Inside HigherEd, and elsewhere have discussed the importance of doing so. Am I looking through the glasses with my own bias? I don’t think so. Let me highlight the reasons why.

Many, if not most, liberal arts graduates will have to know about business. Art or music majors will most likely deal with business issues in their profession, whether it’s acting in the role of a curator at a museum or starting a business of giving music lessons. Psychology, economics, and even philosophy majors may end up working with consulting firms, and having a course or two about business and entrepreneurship would help further round their education to better practice and understand the consulting world. Foreign language majors will intersect with the business world through international development, serving as interpreters for the United Nations, or tutoring in foreign languages on their own.

These are just some of the synergies created in their professional lives. Knowing about business for one’s personal life is just as important. Being able to budget your money, determine where to invest for the future, or understand health care and other fringe benefits are all examples.

A Perfect Combination

I am not necessarily saying there should be a major in business and entrepreneurship at liberal arts colleges; this may create some controversy among the purists. But, having a “minor” in business and entrepreneurship to complement one’s liberal arts major could be a perfect combination.

There are already some progressive schools on this front. Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.) has a department and major in Business, Organizations and Society. Courses include theories of organization, accounting for decision-making, organizational behavior, financial reporting, quantitative methods, marketing, ethics, international business, portfolio management, and others.

Organizational behavior overlaps with psychology, ethics overlaps with philosophy, and finance overlaps with economics.

The provost at Haverford College (Pa.) told me his leadership team is considering this possibility (they haven’t yet dedicated faculty/leadership to the idea).
Certainly, even with such representative courses, we can see the intersections with other disciplines in the liberal arts.  Organizational behavior overlaps with psychology, ethics overlaps with philosophy, finance overlaps with economics, quantitative methods overlaps with math and statistics, and the list goes on.

An interdisciplinary minor in business and entrepreneurship could be created by pooling resources from liberal arts disciplines along with some new hires in business disciplines or with the help of executives in residence. The “Minor in Entrepreneurship and Management” has worked very well for liberal arts and engineering students of larger institutions such as Johns Hopkins University (Md.).

I don’t want to ruffle feathers, but liberal arts colleges are missing an important opportunity for students. I’m willing to bet a minor in business and entrepreneurship would become one of the most popular, chosen to further enhance the student’s learning and perhaps one’s resume.

Elite U.S. liberal arts colleges should be leading the way and setting an example for others. By doing so, other liberal arts colleges will follow, further enriching  students’ education and marketability in these tough economic times.

Jay Liebowitz is the Orkand Endowed Chair in Management and Technology at the University of Maryland University College. He can be reached at jliebowitz@umuc.edu.


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