Business and the Liberal Arts at St. Lawrence University
St. Lawrence University is the sort of place most people probably think of when they hear “liberal arts college”—small student body, residential campus in rural Upstate New York, and a curriculum that emphasizes the traditional liberal arts and sciences, with little in the way of technical or preprofessional training at the undergraduate level. For the last forty years, in fact, St. Lawrence has not even had a business major, although business is the most popular undergraduate major in US colleges and universities by a significant margin.
In 2013, though, St. Lawrence launched the Business in the Liberal Arts major. The program emphasizes many of the courses and skills typically associated with business programs—courses in microeconomics and accounting, an analytical reasoning distribution area—but it also requires courses focused on global citizenship and social responsibility and, even more atypically, it must be paired with a second major. Faculty see the second major as a way to ground the program in St. Lawrence’s liberal arts tradition and help students develop the ability to navigate uncharted territory in their future careers, says Brian Chezum, a professor of economics and one of the founders of the program. “We want to educate [our business majors] in a way that allows them to see beyond the path that they are on. We believe that a liberal arts education does that better than any other education, better than any technical education.”
Building on the Liberal Arts Foundation
Business and the Liberal Arts was created initially in response to external pressures. As a consequence of the Great Recession, many students and their families are increasingly focused on financial prospects, Chezum says, and they are looking for programs and majors that are closely tied to the jobs students might pursue after college. There was also some concern that potential students who might thrive at St. Lawrence weren’t considering the university because they wanted the option of a business degree, says Valerie Lehr, vice president and dean of academic affairs. Furthermore, some faculty worried that students felt pressured to major in economics because they saw that as the closest analogue to business, whether or not they had any interest in or aptitude for the subject.
“We recognized these pressures,” Chezum says, “but we also believe very much that a liberal arts degree is the best training for most career opportunities. The question was, how do we develop an environment that gives students some of the training that they are looking for—the business background—and yet encourage them to recognize that they live in a dynamic world, whereas a traditional business major is rooted in analytics and algorithms,” an approach that is unsuited for solving unscripted problems.
Chezum was part of a committee of faculty—including another economist, a historian, a computer scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher—that set about drafting a proposal for a business major at St. Lawrence. Their first step was to interview alumni working in business—many quite successfully—and ask them what aspects of their St. Lawrence education had been most valuable to them.
“A lot of what we learned was what we already suspected—that a liberal arts education had given them … a powerful set of tools to confront new or changing environments or problems. Their training wasn’t specific or narrow, but a broad training that allows them to analyze new and dynamic worlds in important ways.”
Based on these conservations, the committee put together the first draft of a core business curriculum that would be grounded in economics and accounting, but they also decided that the business major should be paired with a second major. The faculty senate initially balked at the double-major requirement—some faculty felt that business principles and the liberal arts could be joined in a more integrative way in a single major, and many were concerned about students failing to graduate because of a missing requirement for the second major, Lehr says. After seeing a second proposal, though, they agreed that the two-major option offered a more comprehensive education. A revised version of the original proposal was accepted and the major established, with the first class of students declaring the business major in 2013.
“I’m an economist at heart, and we think about the world in terms of comparative advantage,” Chezum says of the second major requirement. “We all have something we’re relatively best at. All disciplines attack questions with different analytical tools and methodologies. What we want our students to do is find the discipline in which they have that comparative advantage, that matches their success … there is no one right major, but each major develops a set of analytical tools, and those tools can be broadly applicable. So it’s about matching the individual student to a specific major and the associated skills they develop in this liberal arts school and encouraging them to find what they are best suited for.”
An Integrative Curriculum
A sequence of seven required courses makes up the core of the business major: introduction to economics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, financial accounting, managerial accounting, statistics, and a reasoning course taught by the Department of Philosophy. The core courses are rounded out by at least one course from three of the four elective categories: analytical thinking, global citizenship, social context, and social responsibility. The courses that meet the elective requirements are distributed across almost every department at St. Lawrence, and students are encouraged to fulfill these requirements with courses that also fulfill requirements for their other major—not just to ensure that students are able to make progress toward graduation, but also because “the idea is to get them to see how the tools of their other major can be brought to bear in the business environment,” Chezum says.
The exception to that rule is economics: students are not allowed to fulfill their business major electives with economics courses if that is their second major. Economics does remain the single most popular second major, chosen by about half of the current business majors at St. Lawrence, but psychology, government, and art and art history are also popular options, and many other disciplines share one or two students with the business program.
The program also has an experiential learning requirement. Students have some latitude with this requirement—in addition to completing traditional internships, students can also complete a study abroad experience, or one of the many community-based learning courses St. Lawrence offers. The university’s Center for Civic Engagement maintains strict standards for community-based courses: all students undergo an orientation program before being placed in community organizations, they must engage in regular guided reflection about their experiences with faculty at St. Lawrence, and they must distribute their hours working in the community across the semester, rather than working in a few large chunks. The community-based learning option is particular important, Chezum says, “as it encourages business students to think about these issues in the nonprofit framework.”
Moving Forward: Capstones and Assessment
Over one hundred students have already declared a major in Business and the Liberal Arts, but the university expects the program to grow much larger in the coming years, and some changes are already planned. The major does not currently have a capstone requirement, but the faculty are working on this feature, Lehr says. The current idea is to create a case-study course in which students work in teams to address problems that require them to integrate learning from their core business courses, their second majors, and their general education. The teams would be composed of students who have all paired different majors with business. “What we’d really like to see is if that capstone affects how our students ultimately integrate everything they are taking across the curriculum,” Lehr says.
Faculty are also considering different assessment strategies. One possible approach was inspired by the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, by Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William M. Sullivan, and Jonathan R. Dolle. The authors note that in national surveys, business students are less likely than students in other majors other to say that they learn from other students, and that business majors often focus on analytical thinking to the exclusion of other types of thinking. “If students are not learning to think in multiple ways in business programs,” Lehr says, “[the authors] argue that they are going to perpetuate some of the issues currently going on in business–they aren’t likely to step back and say, ‘Does this make sense? Is this ethical?’ We plan to identify some of the questions from these national surveys we find interesting and see if, when we separate out our business majors, they show some of the same trends as business majors nationally.”
For Lehr, the business major elective categories—analytical thinking, global citizenship, social context, and social responsibility—represent a different approach to how St. Lawrence University proposes to educating business majors, one that might help St. Lawrence students answer those questions differently.
“If we want responsible people in business, what do we want them to think about? When I look at this major, that’s the question those electives answer in my mind.”
Read more about the Business in the Liberal Arts major at St. Lawrence University’s website. You can also find more resources on integrative learning, and research on what business leaders look for in the college graduates they hire, from AAC&U.