In 2006, I traveled from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia, to interview second-year law students at my alma mater, the University of Virginia School of Law.
I found students unlike those I had met on any of my past recruiting trips.
They all had arrived at law school with much broader experience in the world than had my generation. Consequently, these students had a more expansive view of career possibilities for themselves, not only in terms of personal success but also in terms of making a positive impact through the practice of law.
They were already global citizens, and they changed my impression of what made the “perfect” law-firm associate.
My generation grew up in a world of work that was relatively stable, even predictable. But the prospective lawyers I interviewed in 2006 came of age in a world of relentless change; they faced a world ready and able to compete for their jobs.
Those students stayed at the top of my mind as I considered another phenomenon taking shape in the early 2000s: the failure of traditional hiring processes to identify the qualities that are most needed at work today. I saw too many institutions stuck in a twentieth-century mindset while operating in a totally new twenty-first-century reality.
There was one sector I knew that was embracing change, encouraging it, and urgently trying to predict what was coming next. That was the business community, and particularly those companies with a more entrepreneurial focus.
The problem at the slower-changing institutions like the legal profession wasn’t a fear of new technology; it was that they didn’t feel much urgency.
The status quo was protected by layers of tradition, incentives and habits of behavior.
I realized with rising concern that the problem was deeply embedded in the way students prepared for their professions.
The education system itself had barely adapted to the new global realities. Students were different, but the practices of many of the colleges and graduate schools they attended were pretty much the same as those at my undergraduate and law schools, Vassar and UVA, in the 1970s.
Business education, I thought, could lead the way out of this, if for no other reason than that at various points in history, business had shown itself to be responsive to a rapidly changing world.
The contemporary innovation economy needs both left- and right-brain strengths working together. But the silos of business and technical and professional education were still training students to develop those strengths separately, as they had for decades. That was the underlying problem.
In undergraduate business and technology programs, pressure to confer marketable, quantifiable skills crowded out the broader systems thinking that ultimately makes great innovators and entrepreneurs.
There was so much technical information to master in many fields that there was never enough time to teach or experience such right-brain skills as creativity and storytelling or to focus on ethical behavior in varying contexts.
Liberal arts majors suffered the opposite problem. The declining number of those majoring in English, history, languages, fine arts and the like had little exposure to the more left-brain disciplines in the course of their studies.
It seemed apparent that exposure to business and technical subjects would broaden their understanding of society, of the world of work, and of the global economy. That broader view would inform their critical thinking in their respective fields. An understanding of international finance, for example, would deepen the historian’s view of why nation-states succeed or fail.
Higher education’s traditional separation of left-brain and right-brain domains has left graduates ill-prepared for a career landscape characterized by hybrid jobs that mix and match elements of those domains on a daily basis.
I had worked long enough in the practice of law, in government, in the business world, and in civic development to know that real change happens when people see new opportunities to shake up the status quo. Still, I was not part of the education establishment.
So, when Bentley College (now Bentley University) approached me about its presidency, I was intrigued. The institution’s long-standing approach — the cross-disciplinary integration of liberal arts in the context of teaching business, along with a singular focus on business ethics — captured my imagination. This, I thought, might be the appropriate educational response to a world undergoing such dramatic upheaval.
Originally an accounting and finance school, Bentley has evolved in recent decades to emphasize the study of liberal arts, technology, ethics and social responsibility, in addition to the traditional business disciplines. Our track record speaks to the value of a Bentley education: Ninety-eight percent of graduates have been either hired or accepted to graduate programs within six months of graduation for the past eight years.
Creating an education system that truly prepares a greater number of young people to compete effectively in a global economy has become a common goal among players in education, business and public policy.
Business education is a terrific place to experiment because it is feeling all the pressures that business feels, acutely and quickly.
I came to academia with respect for its institutions and expertise, in hopes of preserving the best while helping accelerate necessary change.
Using Bentley’s focus as one reference point, I hope to contribute meaningfully to the broader conversation around effective models of undergraduate and graduate business education in a rapidly changing world.
An attorney, public policy expert and business leader, Gloria Cordes Larson was elected president of Bentley University by the Bentley Board of Trustees on July 1, 2007. She is the first woman to serve in this post.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from PreparedU by Gloria Cordes Larson. Copyright (c) 2017 by Gloria Cordes Larson. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.
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