No Deal on Business Major

Chicago's proposed undergraduate business major was short-lived, but the economics faculty found a way to save it, as a new "track."

April 10, 2018
 
The Chicago Maroon
Fliers opposing a proposed undergraduate business major at Chicago

Facing opposition from some students and fellow professors, architects of a proposed undergraduate business major at the University of Chicago have withdrawn their plan from consideration by faculty peers.

Yet the idea lives on: instead of an entirely new major, the economics faculty has approved a business economics “track,” to begin in the fall, according to information from the department.

Chicago may be known for its many preprofessional graduate programs, including a top business school, but its undergraduate college is known for its dedication to the liberal arts. The college’s core curriculum remains one of the nation’s most thorough.

Any new major must win the majority approval of the College Council, a formidable group of faculty members from across the college. The council’s meetings are confidential, but it’s widely known that John List, Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor and chair of economics, pitched the business major to the council at its last meeting two months ago.

After some debate, the idea was tabled for the next meeting, set for this week. In the interim, however, List withdrew the idea for a new major that would see students taking classes in the Booth School of Business.

List did not respond to a request for comment Monday. But his assistant said via email that the department had internally approved the new track and details were forthcoming.

Opposition to the major centered on the college’s liberal arts tradition.

In an op-ed for the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, for example, fourth-year philosophy and political science major Eero Arum argued that the university has always “distinguished itself from other institutions of higher learning by insisting that education is not a means of acquiring certain technical skills, but an end in itself.” So if the business major passed, Arum wrote, Chicago would “abdicate any claim it may once have held to defend this classical vision of liberal education. It will have capitulated to the prevailing credentialist ethos of the modern American university system, which defines the value of a college degree in terms of the future earnings it yields.”

Someone -- maybe students -- also posted fliers on campus saying, “Business has no business here” and “In the name of critical thinking skills, tell faculty council to vote no.”

Andrew Abbott, a member of the council and Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology, wouldn’t discuss his personal views on the business major. But he said that the college has always had de facto preprofessional majors, meaning that substantial numbers of biology majors go into medicine, for example. (The college also has a law, letters and society major that began accepting applications again this year after an extensive review of its "value" to the college.)

“The university has in fact always sent a lot of people into the business world,” Abbott added, noting that he’d surveyed decades' worth of alumni in the 1990s as part of an institutional research project and found that 20 to 25 percent of graduates ended up in business.

Many of them majored in economics, suggesting that economics is a kind of de facto preprofessional major, as well, he said. Yet to have “a major that has a title of an occupation in it -- that hasn’t been done so far.”

Abbott added, “I’m sure there are some faculty who think, ‘We don’t need this. We have a situation that’s working fine, why change the situation?’”

Seth Brodsky, an associate professor of music and humanities and another member of the College Council, said Monday that he’d asked the body to table the vote at the last meeting to allow for further discussion.

The proposal enjoyed some support, however. Asked about a possible business major at a recent forum on free speech, John Boyer, college dean, said that Chicago offered an undergraduate business major through 1955, until the business school became the Booth graduate school, making him “very comfortable” with the proposal from an institutional history perspective.

Hundreds of undergraduate students are currently taking graduate courses in Booth, he said, likening a transition to a major to “running through an open door.”

More generally, Boyer said, boundaries between the college and the campus’s many graduate divisions “should be more fluid than I think some people think them to be.”

Matthew Foldi, a fourth-year political science major, said Monday via Twitter that the major was a “terrific idea” whose “critics forget that at the University of Chicago in particular, there is next to no risk that this major strays from our focus on the life of the mind.”

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