Business School

These Professors Are Breaking the Mold of Business Courses

October 1, 2021  • Jaime Bettcher

It is easy to get swallowed up by the dark headlines of the past few years—to feel a sense of hopelessness for a brighter future. I feel fortunate to be continually buoyed not only by my dedicated colleagues at the Aspen Institute but also by a broader community of brilliant scholars around the world.

In my role at the Institute, I have the privilege of reviewing hundreds of nominations for our Ideas Worth Teaching Awards. These awards, whose latest recipients we announced yesterday, recognize extraordinary educators who bridge the power of business to the greatest societal challenges of the day—from climate change to racial injustice to democratic erosion. These courses offer a powerful antidote to pessimism.

The collective spirit of this year’s eight award winners, at our current chaotic and uncertain moment, has parallels with the Institute’s founding itself. “The Aspen Institute was founded 70 years ago in the aftermath of genocide, world war, and nuclear destruction by a group of pragmatic and humanistic optimists who believed that a good society must be organized around—and protect and promote—human dignity,” notes Institute President Dan Porterfield.

The Institute was a celebration and reaffirmation of global humanity in an attempt to ensure that such horrors of World War II would not happen again. As Porterfield reminds us, we find ourselves now in a moment with challenges and opportunities of a similar historic scale. “Clearly, this is a defining moment in the history of our country as we try to promote racial and gender justice, stop Covid-19, end childhood poverty, reform immigration, fix American health care, make the economy work for all, renew our democracy, mend the social fabric, and see one another as human beings,” he said.

Of course, history offers no simple map to the future and the path forward feels tenuous. Will we emerge out of this crisis with the same idealism of the past? Amidst overwhelming challenges to our daily routines, will we also have the tenacity to realign our actions with what we truly value? In the chaos, perhaps it’s easier to have the goal of “normalcy”—fortify the same rules, systems, and power hierarchies that allowed us to sleepwalk into the crises we face now.

Complex ethical and social questions have not traditionally been the focus of business or business curricula, which more often take more “technical” objectives like productivity and stock price as chief challenges to tackle. When our founder, Walter Paepcke developed the first Aspen Executive Seminar, he noted, “We send our brighter men to special professional and technical meetings and sometimes to special schools or courses … But these things, valuable as they are, don’t get at our most serious perplexities.”

That is why it is so significant that today, there are bold faculty breaking the mold. The educators in this year’s winning cohort recognize that powerful change in business begins with new ideas and mindset shifts. Conventional business frameworks that trade humanism and wellbeing for strictly utilitarian pursuits of profit and efficiency will not address growing catastrophic climate disasters or persistent racial injustice. It is the visionary curriculum in these winning courses—radically reimagining the role that business can play in our most persistent problems—that will support a flourishing and resilient society. They depict a future in which:

Workplaces model how truly diverse and inclusive communities can unlock human potential and shared prosperity.
  • Professor Courtney McCluney gives business leaders the tools to have productive and necessary conversations about race and design operational processes that break up detrimental hierarchies and power imbalances.
  • Through a course taught by Professor Nicholas Pearce, students develop the capacity to recognize the value of human difference and the ability to cultivate inclusive, collaborative, and diverse teams.
The next generation of digital founders and CEOs place human dignity on equal footing with efficiency and convenience.
  • Professor Emily Cox Pahnke brings a healthy dose of self-awareness and purpose to the entrepreneur’s toolkit by interrogating motives and understanding the ‘grand challenges’ most in need of market innovation.
  • In his appropriately named “Big Data, Big Responsibilities” course, Professor Kevin Werbach gives students the tools to question the broader implications of data utilization, algorithms, and AI and employ them in a way that recognizes the humans behind the data points.
The behaviors and the rules that dictate our economic system build on historical perspectives – and diverse worldviews. 
Financial markets are designed to incentivize the outcomes we seek for a healthy planet. 
  • Professors Kingsley Fong and Professor William Wu are breaking through the tired old assumption that increasing financial return should be the single driving force behind investment decisions and asks students to reflect and analyze “for what purpose?”
  • Professor Swasti Gupta-Mukerjee scales the fortress walls that separate finance from its real societal impacts by embedding these impacts in a core finance toolkit, making ESG the new normal instead of a specialized form of finance.

As I read these syllabi, I feel the spark of idealism and hope reignite and I can’t help but imagine what those first participants in the Aspen Executive Seminar must have felt back in 1950.  We too are faced with an opportunity to start a new chapter in the long history of humanity and, unlike 1950, when the room was filled almost exclusively with white men, we can build a future that celebrates and nurtures truly inclusive and sustainable systems. With this year’s winning courses, I see the collective architecture that will get us there—and allow us to look back on today as a time of foundational change.

Read these syllabi and learn more about this year’s Ideas Worth Teaching Award Winners here.

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