Monday, April 9, 2007

College Dean’s Prize: Improvements for the Marshall School

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, it necessary for campuses to respond to changes in the technology-driven growth of information and communication, globalization, competition, and calls for accountability. The University of Southern California (USC) has recognized this need, one response to which is the College Dean’s Prize, whereby undergraduates submit proposals with their suggestions on how to enhance both academic life and the educational experience as a whole. Students are encouraged to “think seriously about learning, be creative and daring, and [inspirational],” and to focus on important issues, being practical, and having a wide impact. This prize presents an opportunity to forge a bond with USC's role and mission, which is a commitment to role and mission, “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” Furthermore, proposals could be cognizant of the university’s strategic plan strategic plan to meet societal needs, promote learner-centered education, and increase collaboration between disciplines and schools within USC. As the school year moves to a close, this week’s post will, therefore, focus on a proposal for improvements within my campus unit, the Marshall School of Business (pictured above).

Marshall is well known for its strong alumni network, focus on globalization, and successful graduates, as it promises future students that a “Marshall degree admits you to a global network of more than 60,000 alumni working in 44 countries, and more than 200,000 USC graduates in all 50 states and every region of the world.” Nevertheless, the business school would do well to improve its realization of USC’s core values of caring and respect for one another as individuals and ethical conduct. The university is rightly proud to “strive constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping [students] to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.” However, many of these basic ideals are not implemented in the business school. Students consistently complain about the lack of ethics courses, which are not part of the required curriculum—also, ethics are not emphasized within most business classes. This is a large oversight, especially considering the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the “legislation enacted in response to the high-profile Enron and WorldCom financial scandals to protect shareholders and the general public from accounting errors and fraudulent practices in the enterprise,” and questionable actions taken by CEOs such as Patricia Dunn (pictured at the right).

Under the umbrella of ethical issues are also the business curve and classroom methods, both of which encourage an individualism that is inconsistent with the university's emphasis on collaboration. In order to remain a prominent business school Marshall requires its entire faculty to follow a steep curve in their classes. As a result, students who actually earned high percentage grades will see their score dropped to reduce the number of A’s within a course. While this makes the Marshall Business School look more difficult and impressive when compared to its competitors (USC is currently ranked at number twenty-one, compared to Wharton at number one, according to BusinessWeek, pictured) in reality such a stringent curve frustrates students, fosters competition among peers, and makes it increasingly difficult for undergraduates to receive appropriate grades. These results are a departure from USC’s strategic plan to “focus on the educational needs of the student[s] rather than the structure and needs of the teaching institution.” In relation to the curve, the business program needs to expand on its methods of tutelage. Extensive lecturing and multiple-choice tests will hardly prepare undergraduates to enter a field that is rapidly changing and collaborative, as organizations are moving towards more flexible, team-based structures. Business students need to supplement the acquisition of facts and terms with the practical application of working together, solving problems, and behaving professionally. Although many Marshall courses incorporate group projects and activities, these should be the focus of class and not simply an addendum to the lecture material.

Solutions to Marshall’s ethical issues such as the lack of ethics courses, the difficult grading curve, and problems with practical classroom learning are well within its ability to change. With such a rich cadre of available faculty, USC could integrate professors from other disciplines that study ethical behavior into the business school. The Philosophy Department stresses ethics in its courses, and it would be possible for philosophy faculty either to collaborate with business professors to create business ethics classes, or teach the classes themselves. However, the simplest approach to integrating ethical studies into the business curriculum is to require every professor to emphasize them with their students. For example, accounting faculty could outline both legal and ethical guidelines for students, and discuss past occurrences of accounting fraud. Likewise, eliminating the grading curve will foster academic integrity and ethical behavior in students, who are often tempted by the competition to cheat on exams. Furthermore, eradicating the curve will reduce rivalry and encourage undergraduates to collaborate more with each other throughout their learning experiences. While USC might be wary that such action would decrease its ability to compete with other strong business programs, there are many additional methods that can be utilized to increase status, besides a difficult curve. This falls in neatly with the final issue—Marshall needs to restructure classroom learning to make its teachings more applicable in the business world. With courses more challenging, collaborative, and practical, USC could produce even more successful graduates and attract more students.

Other successful business schools currently focus on some of these methods. Harvard Business School trains future leaders through its Case Method program, which “redefines the traditional educational dynamic,” and encourages students not to “simply [absorb] facts and theories, but also” to practice “the skills of leadership and teamwork in the face of real problems.” Liberated from the lecture format, students are guided by faculty in making authentic business decisions with peers that will directly apply to their future real-world experience. The well-respected Wharton Business School, at the University of Pennsylvania, also utilizes hands-on practice of relevant business skills, through a program animated by the conviction that “teamwork is the core experience through which all students begin to define themselves as leaders.” For example, its “innovative and interactive” introductory management course consists of a project in which ten undergraduates create and implement a community service project. Throughout the entire process, developing friendships and positive business relationships is emphasized. Unlike Marshall, Wharton does not emphasize competitive grading in order to gain status—according to a student-run blog, “Grade Nondisclosure (GND) is a student initiative…we have decided we won't be disclosing our grades.” Out of respect for its students, Wharton has become the only business school not to publish grades.

Overall, my training and the training of those following me could be more robust. By implementing the above changes in the Marshall School of Business, USC will foster growth, success, and just behavior in future business leaders nationally. Increased education about ethics will prepare students to make morally rich decisions, and restructuring classroom learning and abolishing the grading curve will allow them to practice ethical behavior at college. As a consequence, it is likely that ethics will be more clearly defined and followed, and professionals will be encouraged to be more collaborative and honest. USC has stated in its role and mission that “in our surrounding neighborhoods and around the globe, USC provides public leadership and public service in such diverse fields as health care, economic development, social welfare, scientific research, public policy and the arts.” The development of ethical leaders will be a strong addition to USC’s current contributions to the world.


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