This commentary by Carroll School Dean Andy Boynton originally appeared in the spring edition of Carroll Capital, a newsletter geared primarily to deans of business schools.
Very often, I’ll take a moment to look out from my office and gaze upon our splendid campus with its towers and gothic structures but also, most hearteningly, the talented young men and women busily crowding pathways at the epicenter of Boston College. Now, mid-morning, at a university graced with nearly 15,000 enrollees, all that’s missing in this picture is the reason why we’re here—the students.
So many of us in higher education, whether still on campus or staring at our screens at home, have been working at warp speed to deliver the teaching and learning online. We’ve been looking for every way possible to support both our students who have decamped to all corners of the globe, and our heroic faculty members who have taken their positions on the front lines of this brave new normal.
Looking out my window, other thoughts breeze in as well, having to do with the sheer expanse of a national research university. Our universities are a sight to behold, spanning vast realms of human knowledge and intellectual discovery, including the laboratory science that may help assuage the current plague or ward off a recurrence in the future.
And what about the business schools?
Even though we’re all in a state of emergency, I believe we also need to keep our eyes on the big picture—the questions and challenges that won’t fundamentally change. And so, I wonder: How do our particular institutions—schools of management—figure into the grand scheme of contemporary higher learning? I suspect: Not quite as grandly as we might want to think.
Hear me out.
I believe that in the wondrous landscape of academia, most of us (in business schools) are here to augment the arts and sciences. That’s surely the case at a business school like ours, situated within a Jesuit university that prizes the humanities as well as the natural (and social) sciences, but I think it’s also true for any liberal arts university.
I’ve had this feeling for some time now, so I was—almost—ready when someone from the press asked me a startling question last fall: “What is a lie that too many business students believe in?” This reporter apparently has put the same question to other business school deans. I don’t know how my colleagues at other schools have responded, but once I got over the surprise of being asked, I went with the flow. I said, “I think the lie is that business education is more important than the liberal arts. I don’t think that’s the case.”
Don’t get me wrong. We have a great deal to offer students, in all professional schools, including management. We can teach them to think critically, ethically, and analytically, to become experts in their chosen fields, to leverage their skills for different applications, and to help lead organizations through normal as well as through extraordinary times like these. As deans and professors, we can also model the kind of cross-disciplinary curiosity that the liberal arts promote. We’re teaching students to do all of that, even now, every day, in the most difficult circumstances. Still, in my mind, the broader learning they do at a university like Boston College is more important in the long run, for them as individuals and for the larger society.
I can hardly fault all those students who have chosen business as their academic focus, the ones who have, once again, made management the top major for undergraduates in the United States, according to the latest Poets & Quants survey, reported in this edition of Carroll Capital. How could I, as a business school dean, argue with that?
All the same, I feel strongly that undergraduate students need to grapple with the larger picture of human learning, and that our schools should help them see it. The arts and sciences are where students discover the big ideas, the history of thought, what humanity down through the ages has learned from the sciences (and continues to learn, despite frequent attacks on the methods and conclusions of scientists).
In their literature, philosophy, physics, and other courses, college students encounter profound insights, learn to reflect on them, and cultivate essential habits of mind, which include integrating various streams of knowledge. That’s exceedingly important for a human being, but also for business. Leaders in the 21st century need to think broadly, creatively, diversely. Tunnel vision is not going to help them take on complex, multilayered challenges (not to mention an unprecedented pandemic). And it’s not going to help them find new and unexpected opportunities.
Some students may show up at college with a truncated vision of higher education. Others don’t, but may not see a clear pathway toward gaining and integrating the broader learning. At a business school, it shouldn’t just be possible for students to undertake such an intellectual journey (assuming they’re at a liberal arts university). It’s also necessary for schools to build and refine the pathways that facilitate this learning—mechanisms that include careful advising, curriculum changes (for instance, at the Carroll School we let students opt out of some management requirements if they major or minor in the arts and sciences), close and sustained collaboration with partners elsewhere in our university, and other innovations. Business students shouldn’t have to swim against the tide to get a well-rounded higher education.
All that is something I should know, just being at an institution grounded in the Jesuit liberal arts tradition. But it’s also something I can feel at this moment—just looking out my window, at Boston College.
Andy Boynton is the John and Linda Powers Family Dean of Boston College's Carroll School of Management.