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New Curriculum Integrates Business Major and Liberal Arts

As the only top-tier liberal arts college with a nationally accredited business school, Washington and Lee University has always promoted the value of studying business in the context of the liberal arts.

A new revision to W&L’s business administration curriculum will make that connection even more explicit. Students can now use more than 100 liberal arts courses from across the University’s curriculum to help satisfy the requirements of the business administration major.

“We were concerned that business majors sometimes just want to take business courses and miss the point of why they are at a liberal arts institution,” said Robert Ballenger, associate professor of business administration/information systems at W&L’s Williams School of Business, Economics, and Politics. “The core business courses for the business major will not change, but we’ve added substantially to the elective courses from which students can choose. It’s designed to expand their horizons and push them out, in an organized way, into the rest of the university, so they understand that business is not a silo by itself. For instance, in business you have to be creative, be concerned about the environment and understand psychology and consumer behavior.”

Prior to this change, at least three elective courses for a W&L business administration major were either accounting, economics or journalism. Now those electives will come from among 16 different disciplines ranging from art to psychology. And those courses are in addition to the foundation and distribution requirements that all W&L students must take.

Amanda Bower, associate professor of business administration/marketing and a primary architect of the changes, worked with faculty across the campus to identify appropriate elective courses.  She collaborated both Ballenger and Dennis Garvis, department head and associate professor of business administration/strategy, to gain faculty approval for the change. Ballenger was acting department head in the fall of 2010 while Garvis was on leave.

“I started by defining what business in a liberal arts environment actually is,” said Bower. “We’ve always implicitly understood what it means, but we have never explicitly defined it.”

Bower found no comparable integration of liberal arts courses in her examination of business curricula at other colleges and universities. She defines business in a liberal arts school as the study of human behavior in a business or goal-oriented environment. “That’s really what business is all about,” she said. “You’re taking other disciplines, from statistics to biology or performance arts, and applying them in a field where you’re trying to accomplish something.”

Using the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, Bower calculated where the interests of the Williams School and liberal arts intersected. She initially identified more than a dozen courses in anthropology, art, computer science, English, environmental studies, music, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology and poverty studies that complement the business major. “These courses offer students a fuller understanding of the connection between business and other fields,” she said.

“Students were already showing us some of the curricular connections that they were making in the courses they were already choosing to take outside the major. Changing the structure of the major now makes those connections explicit,” said Garvis.

For example, if a business major is interested in advertising and marketing, he or she can choose to study theories of personality, learning and retention, gender role development, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. “They all fit, because a lot of marketing is psychology and understanding human behavior,” said Bower.

Ballenger explained that for a student interested in creativity, upper-level courses in painting, photography, print making, theater or dance would be logical choices that will now count toward the major. “Some people may ask what these subjects have to do with business. First, it will help you if you have to manage creative people. Also, if you are in advertising, it will give you an appreciation of what it takes to be creative and give you a sense of aesthetics. A lot of business people don’t have that unless they came up through the creative side of the business,” he said.

Bower cited the example of a sociology course on work, family and community. “That’s definitely business in terms of how you treat employees, the stresses they are under and how they respond at work,” she said. “One of my favorites is theater directing, because it’s about leadership and figuring out visually how things come together. It’s project management plus creativity, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Bower noted that under the new curriculum, students have more latitude in putting together courses that suit their particular goals. “Say a student is interested in working with kids who are worried about obesity. That student might choose theater directing, deviance and developmental psychology as the three electives. Now the student will know the depth of how children process information, and be able to put a project together and present it aesthetically,” she said. “It all depends on how they want to market themselves to future employers.”

If you take elements from other fields and incorporate them into a business class, said Bower, students will get only the business perspective. The new elective courses, however, take business majors to the source material of a subject. “We want students to make their own connections between business and the liberal arts,” she said. “That’s where you make innovations — on the margins, the overlap between two different fields, coming up with innovative ideas from new places. It’s not copycatting or replicating what someone else has done in the past. It’s a different way of thinking. It’s also one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education, to learn how to think independently and creatively.

“And in their future careers, these students won’t read just business blogs for ideas on how to tackle an issue such as social networking. They will know how to read the anthropology literature and come up with a novel solution. The students are excited about this because they understand how it all fits together.”

In Garvis’s view, the W&L students have an advantage over students at larger universities who pursue a more traditional, more narrow business curriculum.

“Our students should be better prepared to handle ambiguous or uncertain situations or decisions,” said Garvis. “If you see a problem and approach it strictly from business courses you’ve pursued, then you might not have all the information that you need. Business problems or organizational decisions don’t come at you as strict case studies in the real world.”

At the same time, he added, the W&L business students have the introduction to the business context that also sets them apart from those students with a basic liberal arts background.

“We’ve found our own way,” said Garvis, “and it’s not the kind of thing that is for everybody. But we think it works especially well for our students and in our setting.”

The curricular change was accomplished during a two-year period in which the business administration faculty met with their colleagues from across the university to finalize the courses that would be included in the major. “We’re extremely excited that we came up with a way to partner with other departments on campus to do this,” said Ballenger.

Bower thinks the liberal arts faculty will enjoy having business majors in their classes. “These students will be really interested in the issues and thrilled to be in their classes,” she said. “They will also bring a diversity of knowledge and a different way of looking at things, which can be helpful to other students.”

The new elective courses are outlined in the 2011-2012 catalog, which also details another change that allows students “to get a taste of business courses earlier, starting in their second year,” said Ballenger. “If students are interested in investment banking, they can begin taking finance in the sophomore year instead of as a junior, which makes them better prepared for interviews for internships.”

One other advantage of the change will be to lighten the burden of students who want to pursue a double major in business and another subject, since some of the electives will count toward both majors and will give students more flexibility in their schedule.

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459