Jaro: Northwestern could be leader in undergraduate business

Jan Jaro, Columnist

Walking around the halls of elite American universities, one hears a familiar refrain: “Business education doesn’t belong at the undergraduate level.” Although attitudes differ across universities, the success of undergrad business programs at Penn, MIT and Cornell seems to debunk the belief that a traditional liberal arts education can’t coexist with pre-professional programs. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as engineering is an especially popular major at Northwestern and across the country. However, NU has unique strengths, and I believe that if the money were available, the school would be wise to explore the possibility of adding what could be a world-class undergraduate business program.

It is certainly true that business in its widest sense is about applying soft skills such as relationship management in addition to using hard skills with the end goal of maximizing profitability. Many MBA programs center on the philosophy that applicants should have significant work experience precisely because soft skills are so valuable to business education. Kellogg is particularly stingy about this belief and NU’s law school is starting to adopt the same notion.

Nevertheless, business can be made to be a worthwhile intellectual exercise for undergraduate students. Imagine students discussing entry strategies for a blue-chip consumer goods company in an emerging market or ways to build socially sustainable relationships with communities and governments over late-night coffee. Northwestern does have elements of an undergrad business program built into its economics and Business Institutions programs, Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences degree, and Kellogg and marketing certificates. However, the disjointed nature of these programs prevents students from fully taking advantage of the opportunities that Northwestern presents them. In addition to significant prerequisites for the IEMS major (enrollment in McCormick) and the Kellogg certificates (a laundry list of mathematics and economics classes), the potential for course conflicts is rife because these programs are administered over several schools.

Northwestern has the opportunity to create a highly innovative undergraduate business program. In the same way that McCormick has created the Engineering Analysis and DTC (Design Thinking and Communication) courses, introductory economics, statistics and management could be integrated into a three-quarter sequence with a separate series emphasizing case studies and practical exercises in the greater Chicago community. Medill’s Enterprise Reporting in Diverse Communities class and the Chicago Field Studies programs are both a good start to building opportunities for undergraduates to acquire real-world experiences.

Moreover, Northwestern can and should emphasize the economic principles underpinning business decisions but from a different angle than one would normally find in economics classes. Instead of limiting economic analysis to the effects of government policy and firm decisions on overall efficiency, business economics at Northwestern could ask how such decisions reinforce or contradict each other and could even delve into the social and political consequences of those decisions.

Northwestern has two compelling attributes that other elite undergraduate business programs don’t have. First, the school runs on a quarter system, allowing students to take more courses and explore a wider variety of interests. Second, Northwestern already has an array of strong pre-professional programs. In addition to a top-notch engineering school, Northwestern has Medill, Bienen, the School of Communication, and the School of Education and Social Policy. The possibilities are (almost) endless. You could have a student studying social policy in addition to concentrating in business strategy. He or she could go on to be a leading figure in nonprofit work. On the other hand, Northwestern could admit a student who has the intent to study materials engineering in addition to international finance. This alum could go on to start a company that revolutionizes carbon nanoengineering, becoming a big donor in the process. I don’t think it’s delusional to claim that within a decade of starting an undergraduate business program, NU could be as competitive as traditional powerhouses such as Wharton and MIT.

There are certainly difficulties to adding an undergraduate business program at Northwestern. Business school professors are expensive and notorious for disliking undergraduate-level teaching. Moreover, NU might have to take away resources from other programs that are blossoming into the top tier of academia, such as chemical engineering (I had to show some love to my major at some point). Nevertheless, I believe that the potential benefits outweigh the costs, especially since the endowment fund increased by nearly 20 percent from last year and the school’s financial position seems to be strengthening. I won’t fully benefit from an undergraduate business program at NU, but I’m confident future generations will if one is established. My mom already wants my 10-month-old brother to come to Northwestern, and I’d like him to at least have the choice to study business at the best school that rocks purple.

Jan Jaro is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at janjaro2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to forum@dailynorthwestern.com.