Discussion over Potential New Business Major creates tension between staff and faculty

Meg Butler   
News Editor

A renewed push for a business major at Sewanee has revived disagreements between faculty and administrators about whether such a program would strengthen the University’s enrollment or detract from its historic mission as a liberal arts college.

 A business major was proposed in 2018 but was shelved due to faculty pushback.  The administration and some members of the Board of Regents have recently urged creation of the new major as a way to sustain and grow enrollment amid concerns about a coming “demographic cliff” or significant  drop in the number of college-bound  high school graduates. But some faculty contend that business majors aren’t as competitive in the job market as graduates from top liberal arts institutions with different degrees. 

A draft strategic planning document presented to the faculty in April proposed that a business major would enhance Sewanee’s liberal arts offerings and bolster enrollment. A more  recent draft of the document presented in September, retitled “Foundational Document,” stated that a business major is among “unclear and/or controversial” proposals that would have to be addressed by a new Vice-Chancellor. 

“There is little support among the faculty for a business major and support among the administration and the Regents to have such a thing,” the Foundational Document stated. “A new Vice-Chancellor will need to lead all involved in a discussion about this.” 

A position statement drafted by Sean O’Rourke and a small group of faculty colleagues in 2019 offered alternatives to a full business major, including enrichment of the business minor and the creation of a finance major. Both alternatives have since been implemented.

The administration has maintained a partial hiring faculty freeze for tenured positions, so departments have replaced formerly tenured positions with visiting assistant professors. Faculty are concerned that the partial freeze is being extended so that funds can be freed up for new programs such as a business department. Some Sewanee professors fear that paying for a new business faculty could end up taking away resources for existing departments that are already struggling with a lack of necessary instructional staff.

Aaron Elrod, Economics professor and chair of the Appointments Committee, which advises the Dean of the college on hiring issues, said, “For a lot of the programs that already exist, we do not have the right level of staffing, and the thought of creating new programs is seen [by the faculty] as not only not putting resources into our current programs but potentially reallocating those resources towards a new program. So, that is a point of contention.” 

Katherine Theyson, the professor and chair of the Economics department, said, “Business faculty are really expensive. I taught for one year at a mid-level state school that had a business school. The business faculty made double what the economics faculty made.” 

In O’Rourke’s business statement from 2019, faculty stated, “Hiring business faculty will shatter the roughly egalitarian salary structure at Sewanee.”

Other small liberal arts colleges have weighed adding business education programs and have implemented a variety of solutions. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on a trend among some colleges to partner with larger institutions so their students can combine a small-college experience with the ability to take online specialty courses and programs in business and related disciplines.. 

At Centre College, which started a new business major in the fall of 2021, economics professors were sent back to graduate school to earn one-year master’s degrees in business specialties so the school wouldn’t have to hire new professors. 

“It’s a creative solution.” said Theyson, who spoke to faculty at Centre College about the creation of their new business major. “But I also think it has potential for being a very problematic solution a little further down the road. They’ve already eliminated a minor at the college as a result of creating this major. Their global commerce minor is gone.” 

Economics professors at Sewanee say they are not interested in a solution like Centre’s. “We chose to pursue and study economics because we’re interested in Economics, not because we eventually wanted to pivot into [business],” said Elrod.

Sewanee would need to be accredited to have a competitive business major. Selling such a program to prospective students also could be challenging at a small college so near to large, established and accredited business schools such as the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University, and University of Georgia. “That’s just additional time and resources and spending,” said Sturgill. Because of Sewanee’s four-classes-per-semester general model, it would be difficult to compete with Business schools where students take up to 17 courses to complete the major. 

“The administration is in a tough spot, because as a liberal arts institution, we have to be competitive. Business is something that the administration argues that we lose out to, to places like UGA or UT. I completely understand what they’re getting at. The problem is, it’s hard to compete with places with such robust existing programs,” said Economics professor Brad Sturgill.

Under the University’s rules of governance, a business major – like all matters of curriculum – must be approved by the faculty. The curriculum and academic policy committee is made up of faculty. Any change or addition of curriculum would first be presented to the faculty’s curriculum and academic policy committee. If sent up to the full faculty by the committee, it would have to be approved by a faculty vote. If the administration wanted to override or bypass the faculty, they could ask the University’s governing boards to create a separate school of business outside of the current undergraduate college. 

There is also concern over how a business major would change Sewanee’s culture as a  small liberal arts institution. “The economics department has been getting very large lately. We’re at a place where we have 60 or 70 majors a year, a huge share of the graduating class. I’m not really sure that’s a good thing, because all of us, faculty and students, came here for a liberal arts experience. If the University becomes just a couple (of) core majors, then everything else sort of becomes a mere accessory to that,” said Theyson. 

The position statement released by Dr. O’Rourke noted this was an issue at other institutions. “Associate Dean Alex Bruce found, in his 2017 survey of business programs at liberal arts colleges, that 36 percent of University of Richmond graduates, 29 percent of Millsaps graduates, 27 percent of Washington & Lee graduates, 24 percent of Morehouse and Trinity (TX) graduates, 22 percent of Birmingham Southern graduates, 14 percent of Southwestern and Centenary graduates, and 13 percent of Skidmore, Rhodes, and Franklin & Marshall graduates are now in business.”

Many professors said that a business major is not necessary, given Sewanee’s current offerings. “The evidence is pretty clear that students who major in finance or economics get a much better education than just a general business major,” said O’Rourke in an interview.

Theyson agreed, “The reality is, job placements are not good for students who come out with business degrees, especially general business, which is the kind of business we would inevitably end up with.”

Dean of the College Terry Papillon is a proponent of the business major for both the benefits to Sewanee and the moral implications of educating students for the business world. “When I came here in 2014, I was absolutely opposed to the business major. But I changed my mind. The more important thing that made me change my view is that schools like us do a really good job of teaching students to form a sense of intellect, curiosity, flexibility, and responsibility. I think we have a moral obligation to be involved in this to make sure that the business world can thrive.” said Papillon. 

According to a survey conducted in 2018, 67 percent of Sewanee alumni who responded think Sewanee should have a business major. 

“All through the report, there were quotations from alumni that said things like, ‘I’m a priest, I really wish I had more business classes, because I have to run my church as a business’. So all through this report, there’s clear evidence that people wish they had the opportunity [to take] more business classes,” said Papillon.

The administration is concerned that students looking to major in business won’t consider  Sewanee, despite there being a business minor and opportunities like the Carey Fellowship program with the Babson Center for Global Commerce. The administration worries that college data websites such as niche.com lead high school students to think that there are no business education opportunities at a college without a business major. 

The current strategic planning effort,  under which the proposed new Business major falls, has been led by four subcommittees comprised of faculty, administration, and students. The subcommittee that discussed and wrote the propositional business major plan is the Curricular Renewal Initiative Subcommittee, led by Papillon. “It was important to me in a committee that had curriculum involved, that we had student voice in it. The president of the Order of the Gown was on the committee, and she was taking the information from our meetings out to various student groups and getting feedback,” said Papillon. 

This renewed push for a business major is coming from several groups and individuals at the University, especially at the administrative level. 

“I believe it is the appropriate responsibility of a vice chancellor or provost or a dean, to say, here’s something I think we should think about,” said Papillon. There is also support from the Board of Regents for a Business major, as they are concerned about upcoming enrollment issues. “The Board of Regents have, as their job, the fiduciary responsibility of ensuring the sustainability of the institution. So for them to have an opinion I think is perfectly within their rights as well. But the faculty govern the curriculum,” said Papillon. 

Representatives from Sewanee’s admissions office have said that surveys of prospective students who were admitted to Sewanee but did not matriculate indicate that they would have liked the option of a business major at Sewanee. The Dean of Admissions Alan Ramirez did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Purple

Until the school hires a new Vice-Chancellor, the debate will continue. Papillon said a full business major merits serious consideration. “I have a responsibility as dean of the college to make sure that the college can flourish, to make sure that the college maintains its commitment to excellence, to make sure the college maintains its commitment to being Sewanee in a way that is Sewanee for the 21st century. That makes me feel like having a business major that is appropriate to Sewanee would be a good thing for us,” said Papillon. 

One comment

  1. Why not consider a 3/2 program similar to what engineering students have? If Sewanee were to align with a premiere business school in such a program, it would be quite a draw for prospective students. The “win” for the business school would be to have an incoming proportion of students with strong communications and critical-thinking skills obtained from a leading liberal arts college. If combined with Sewanee’s economics major with an applied-math minor (finance or statistics), students completing a five-year degree would have terrific career prospects.

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