Business School

Why College Campuses Are Critical for the BRT Statement

August 28, 2019  • Claire Preisser

This month, the venerable Business Roundtable (BRT) released a new set of principles for enacting a corporate purpose broader than (only) generating profit for shareholders. Critics were quick to discount the statement as mere aspiration or public relations, but I had a different question in mind: what do today’s college students need to learn so that—in the future—they can contribute to the “inclusive prosperity” that the BRT statement evokes?

The systemic shift in business the BRT statement envisions will require more than just a commitment from the current occupants of the C-Suite. It will require the capacity to work differently across the entire corporation—with implications for the pipeline for new talent. As students this week refill campuses and lecture halls, a large number of them studying business have the chance to drive change from day one on the job. So, how can their education prepare them for that opportunity?

Since 2012, the Aspen Institute has been building a community of undergraduate educators that takes on just this question. At its heart, our Undergraduate Consortium is about excellent teaching that “blends” the liberal arts and business—and prepares students to think anew about complex decisions that tie business strategy with disciplines ranging from the humanities to the natural sciences.

It is now vital for business leaders to be fluent in a breadth of issues and to prepare for the unexpected. On the global stage, supply chains are being severely disrupted thanks to trade wars. Closer to home, employees and consumers alike are pressuring CEOs to take a stand on immigration, inequality and guns. These issues require the ability to navigate complex discussions right out of classes in political economy, sociology and ethics. Heavy topics like this are no longer just the stuff of seminars. As my colleague Judy Samuelson put it, the business of business is changing.

That change may come as a shock, but while some may scramble to respond, imagine the possibilities for a new generation of students who’ve been prepared to see social impact as the business of business starting from their undergraduate days. The examples from our recent convening point in an encouraging direction. Santa Clara University is “integrating two different disciplines—the discipline to make profits and the discipline to be human”—in their distinctive approach to teaching design thinking. University of Michigan business students are interacting with Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals to prompt discussions on the historical economic fortunes of Detroit and the (mixed) record of business leadership in that city. George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative captures the imagination of students and recharges the sometimes dry-sounding notion of community engagement and the sometimes-daunting challenge of sustainability.

When we hosted the inaugural Consortium convening back in 2012, our questions were more fundamental. Would educators be interested in the idea of blending the liberal arts and business? Beyond a riff on the old joke (an anthropologist walks into a finance classroom…), what would blended classes and curricula actually look like? And how could these be taught—especially at a scale that would make a dent in how today’s students learn about the norms of business decision-making? Though there’s much work still to be done, we know that bringing faculty and administrators together from innovative institutions has answered some of those initial questions.

So what’s next? Bill Sullivan, co-author of the seminal Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education (2011) summed up the progress we made at this year’s convening: “People are onboard with this—the question now is just how you do it.” Last year, we created Charting a New Course as a toolkit to tackle just that, offering descriptions of 26 courses as well as practical strategies for making change in often risk-averse academic institutions. The BRT’s statement has already produced a wealth of commentary, including thoughtful questions about how to bring its stakeholder capitalism to life. If you’re heading back to campus this week, we urge you to add your own question: how might undergraduate education—at its best—contribute to a new business of business?

Claire Preisser is Advisor to the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program (Aspen BSP), and founder of its Undergraduate Network.