Business Schools

Poets, Painters, and Portfolio Managers

Samuelson is joining Shakespeare and Schubert at liberal arts schools, but not without some concerns from faculty

David Landau came to Bard College intending to spend his undergraduate years sharpening his creative writing skills and immersing himself in the works of authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac.

His plans changed when he learned last fall that the school planned to create a new economics and finance dual-degree undergraduate program. The five-year program would allow him to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in literature and writing, while simultaneously obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in economics and finance.

For Landau, also a math enthusiast, it was a tempting idea, one he never imagined he'd be able to take advantage of at a school like Bard, more known for its Shakespeare and theater classes than business offerings. "When I saw this program open up, I got very excited. I really wanted to have some skills for managing my own personal finances," says Landau, 19, a sophomore at the liberal arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., about 90 miles north of Manhattan.

Responding to Student Demands

Over the next few years, alongside his American literature classes, he'll be taking classes such as corporate finance, econometrics, and international trade and finance.

Up till now, these courses have not been Bard's typical fare. Yet the school is one of a small but growing number of liberal arts colleges responding to students' desire to obtain a strong grounding in finance and business during their undergraduate years. Classes in microeconomics and macroeconomics are no longer adequate—students are demanding more in-depth offerings, administrators say.

In response, many are expanding their curricula to align more closely with the offerings of undergraduate business-school programs. In just the past year, Bard and Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., announced ambitious five-year programs intended for students who want more of a background in finance while at college. Meanwhile, liberal arts schools in the Midwest, such as Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., are creating new centers in economics, business, and public policy—the type of think tanks more likely to be found on a university business-school campus than at a small college.

Position in a Competitive Marketplace

Colleges are answering demands for more course offerings in this area because they want to make their schools more appealing to students, says Leslie Garner, president of Cornell College and past president of the board of the National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities, which has about 1,000 member schools.

"We're all concerned about our position in a marketplace that is increasingly competitive and where the demographics aren't necessarily encouraging," Garner says. "I think we're all trying to look and see if we are positioned with the strongest, most attractive, programs given the students we'd like to attract. And if you look at the marketing data for what programs students are interested in, business is always at the top of the list."

Yet adding business and finance degree programs at schools with strong liberal arts and humanities departments can be a tricky endeavor. At some of these schools, faculty are worried the new degree programs and finance centers will move the school away from its core—the arts and sciences—and toward a more trade- or business-school mentality.

Concerns About the Program

For example, professors at Claremont McKenna raised concerns when the school announced in the fall it would be using a $200 million gift from money manager and philanthropist Robert A. Day's private foundation to start a one-year master's program in finance geared toward students who want to study finance, accounting, or leadership psychology. In addition, the school plans to hire several new faculty members and beef up career services and internship opportunities. It will be the school's first graduate program.

Robert Faggen, chairman of the literature department at Claremont McKenna and a prominent Robert Frost scholar, was one of several faculty members who raised objections to the master's program shortly after the announcement. Faculty had concerns ranging from specific aspects of implementing the program to its overall effect on the college, he says.

"There are a number of possible paths to success in the world of finance, and some of those paths include in-depth study of the humanities," Faggen says. "One would like to think that the overall quality of mind that is being cultivated in a liberal arts college does not become too narrowly focused on job training."

Still Committed to the Arts

But administrators at Claremont McKenna maintain that is not the case. The school decided to use the gift to create the program because administrators noticed a large number of students were graduating from college and going into the financial world, but not taking the time to get an MBA along the way, says Pamela Gann, Claremont McKenna's president. Adding a one-year master's program for students interested in pursuing a career in finance seemed like a logical step, especially since the school already had a strong cadre of professors specializing in fields commonly studied in undergraduate and graduate business programs, such as industrial organization and leadership psychology.

"We aren't in any way reducing our commitments to the liberal arts. We believe that is the best education for leadership," Gann says. "We are saying that we are a real world college and don't just work in theory. We are doing a disservice to students if we are not offering them core competencies like accounting, leadership, and finance today."

Indeed, this is a stance many liberal arts colleges are taking today as they design their economics programs to offer students more courses with real-world applications, as well as internship opportunities, says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities. She estimates as many as one-third of the liberal arts colleges in the Annapolis Group, a consortium of 125 leading liberal arts colleges, already offer students some type of business concentration as part of their undergraduate offerings. However, most have not gone as far as Bard and Claremont McKenna, and created degree programs in finance, she notes.

A Place to Talk Business

"I think every liberal arts college in the country is taking a hard look at whether it is doing a good job preparing its students for real world employment," she says. "But there are many ways to do that, and it is not necessary to invent a new degree program for every job that a student might get."

In some instances, colleges are creating economics and business centers on campus to give students a stronger grounding in finance, without requiring them to earn an additional degree. This is the case at Cornell College, which created the Berry Center for Economics, Business & Public Policy in the fall of 2006. The center was a result of a $5 million gift from alumnus Jim McWethy, who wanted to create a place on campus where students could gather to talk about important business and finance topics, as well as find internships in the business field.

It was a good compromise for the school, which didn't have the resources or desire to create a full-scale business department or degree program, says Garner, Cornell's president. The center has so far been an unprecedented success on campus, Garner says. Students use the center to help them find internships in Chicago and other nearby cities, while others sign up for economics and business classes held at the center.

The Track to a Career

Most important, the center has widespread appeal for students from all majors; Garner led a reading group of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's book, Freakonomics, this fall, and of the 18 students who participated, only three were economics and business majors, he says. "I think we felt that students wanted a clearer sense of the track from a Cornell education to a successful career in economics, business, and public policy," Garner says. "The students didn't lobby per se for the creation of a center, but they did vote with their feet."

Students say studying business at a small liberal arts college, rather than a large business school, has its advantages. Vladimir Pick, 20, a sophomore at Bard enrolled in the dual-degree program in economics and finance, says he likes the personal attention from professors and the opportunity to take classes that give him a broader perspective on the world. In addition to finance, he is majoring in computer science.

"I feel most liberal arts colleges have been misunderstood as just being artsy and theatrical and so forth," says Pick, who eventually hopes to work as an investment banker on Wall Street. "I think this is a great opportunity for students who want depth in their education. The finance major gives you real business skills, but the program also leaves you the opportunity to explore whatever humanities interests you might have."

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