Ever since business schools opened their doors, members of the higher education community questioned their existence. Can we call business an academic discipline? What is the intellectual purpose and social utility of a business degree? Questions such as these, along with legitimate frustrations felt by non-business academics, are eloquently articulated in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Business Schools Have No Business in the University.”
Drawing from my own experience – as a college student, faculty member, and now, as director of the School of Business at Marylhurst University – I can see why this divide exists, as well as ways to bridge that gap. I now envision a very different school of business than what exists today.
I majored in English as an undergraduate at Emory, then earned my MBA at University of Washington. Having gained significant value both from my liberal arts and business training, I can understand both the tension and potential power in this relationship. Business schools, in their drive to create strategic problem solvers, need both frameworks found in the discipline of business as well as in the liberal arts to create the business and social leaders of the future.
Adam Nathan, a colleague and founder of The Bartlett System, believes success in the future workplace relies on the intersection of the artist (seeing possibility in the blank page), the technologist (bringing the vision to life) and the entrepreneur (identifying the value proposition and communicating its value in the marketplace). Some universities are uniquely positioned as educators in business, the arts and sciences, communication, and the tools of analysis, aligning to offer something truly unique for their students.
I believe the purpose of a business school is to enable students to elevate the impact of their ideas – to bring these ideas smartly forth to their audience – whether that audience is a market of potential customers or an employer. The ideation itself – seeing possibility on a blank page – can be nurtured in the liberal arts and humanities sides of the university’s portfolio. When I started at Marylhurst four years ago as an adjunct, I saw creative ideas bursting out of our MBA students. Marylhurst has always attracted entrepreneurs and other unique business students ready to make a difference.
With a focus on the liberal arts, and therefore on knowledge and values that drive social change, business frameworks can scale social good. This can be applied to profit-making, but it can also be applied to the business of running a nonprofit, a university or a faith-based institution. The ability of an organization to envision, measure and achieve its goals depends more on an understanding of the interplay among strategy, human and group behavior, execution and analytical frameworks than it does any one discipline.
I made my personal decision to pursue an MBA as a way to gain a set of skills I perceived to represent a gap in the nonprofit industry. Post-MBA, I was able to successfully apply what I learned in the way I intended, working for a large nonprofit where I collaborated to make a significant difference in the organization’s trajectory. My ability to serve as a utility player and to synthesize information can be attributed to the broad, rigorous business education, layered with a liberal arts foundation that I received. I had a unique set of skills to help the operations team to apply the metrics created by other departments such as finance or IT to build a culture of continuous improvement, but also to help other departments understand the importance of a registration process or constituent feedback loop.
Good MBAs can play across an organization, using breadth to honor depth, and move ideas farther, faster. In a difficult market, that nonprofit doubled its budget during my tenure, and tripled fundraising as well as constituents served.
Institutions like Marylhurst University have the ability to leverage their smaller size, inject entrepreneurial thinking and create programs that engage the liberal arts and critical thinking, while offering layers of content that are responsive to the current and changing needs of employers.
Anne Ruybalid is director of Marylhurst University’s School of Business. She joined Marylhurst in 2013 teaching human capital management, statistics and market research. She also consulted businesses on growth/retention strategies and marketplace intelligence. Most recently she served as senior director of lifecycle marketing and insights at YMCA of Greater Seattle.
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