Enlightened Enterprise

December 1, 2020  • Ashley Fetters

It has been 50 years since economist Milton Friedman famously intoned that the business of business is business. But if business schools focus only on technical and practical skills, says Claire Preisser, an advisor to the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, they “miss the huge opportunity to educate students about things like power, or history, or the tensions between capitalism and democracy”—tensions that only intensified in 2020. The connection between business choices and societal health have long been at the center of Business and Society’s work and perhaps nowhere more clearly than in its Undergraduate Consortium.

Initiated in 2012, the Undergraduate Consortium supports educators who draw on the humanities to bring timeless questions and urgent contemporary issues into the business classroom. Over the years, Preisser says, consortium participants have grappled with everything from how to teach about the European refugee crisis to how to equip students to have productive conversations about identity and difference. The pandemic and the reckoning on racial justice this year, she says, “only underscore the need to do more.”

In normal, non-pandemic times, the Undergraduate Consortium’s yearly gatherings are high-energy, two-day affairs. In addition to seminars and discussion groups, attendees participate in activities like scavenger hunts and silent walks around the host city. Before Covid-19 hit, Business and Society had planned programming of just that kind for 2020, at a meeting that was to take place in June at the campuses of Franklin & Marshall College, Bucknell University, and the University of Pennsylvania. But as most things did, the Undergraduate Consortium went virtual. “We believe we have the chance to rebuild our economy and social fabric, and to reimagine how we measure success as a nation and as businesses,” Judy Samuelson, the executive director of Business and Society, said in her opening remarks. Institute CEO Dan Porterfield called the value of the humanities both intrinsic and instrumental in fostering a lifelong proclivity to learn new things, and he stressed the importance of blending the humanities and business education to foster true leadership.

Higher-learning institutions and their communities can come together to counteract both the economic devastation of Covid-19 and long-standing inequality, and business education can also do its part to thwart the destructive forces of structural and institutional racism. Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, described the school’s efforts to provide access to business education and job training in under-resourced areas. “Of course, we support lifelong learning—we like nothing better,” he said. “But we have to acknowledge the economic realities of our students. So maybe we should talk about lifelong earning, and providing pathways on and off, and in and out of academia, to continue to make progress.” Paul Quinn, a Historically Black College, created certificate programs that allow students to qualify for more jobs and create more options for themselves. Adults who enroll can receive job training without committing to longerterm degree programs that might sideline them from working. Graduates can thus leave school in fewer than four years with multiple entry points into a workforce that may be both actively discriminating against them and decimated by a pandemic.

The 2020 Undergraduate Consortium created innovative new collaborations between schools across the globe. The fact that the gathering was both online and free offered “the chance to engage a more global audience,” Preisser says. As a result, this year’s attendees included a wider range of international institutions: some 75 from 14 different countries. Most years, she says, attendees are largely from North America. Mary Brennan, the director of undergraduate programs at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, noted that the quality of the quickly assembled Covid-19 course at Wharton inspired her to consider ways virtual instruction could present new possibilities to collaborate with institutions outside the United Kingdom and Europe.

The disruptions of Covid-19 can present an opportunity to reimagine the consortium as something with even greater impact than an intensive few days. Already, Preisser says, virtual programming is making for unique intersections with the day-to-day life and work of participants. Brennan may have been “heartbroken” when she learned she wouldn’t get to pay her first visit to Wharton this year. But the virtual programming allowed her to sign into the webinars from her phone and listen to discussions as she walked through Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, home of the extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat.

Edinburgh, Brennan pointed out, was “a real center of philosophical and moral and enlightened thinking during the 17th and 18th century.” This summer’s consortium, she said, will help her feel equipped to prepare the next class of Edinburgh graduates to join a world that’s rebuilding and recovering.