by Jackson Bicknell, staff writer
Helen A. Powers was a former member on the Board of Trustees, a chair for the college’s finance and development committee as well as a large proponent for the Warren Wilson business program. Powers is responsible for the Helen A. Powers Business and Economics Scholarship and the Helen Powers Research and Project Grants awarded to students in the sustainable business major. Powers also served a charitable role in the business department at the college.
On Nov. 8, Powers passed away at the age of 88, and it seemed as though the spirit of the business department had gone with her.
Four days after the passing of Powers, on Nov. 12, business majors at Warren Wilson received an email from Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Paula Garrett. “I need to inform you that I am recommending to the Board of Trustees that we close the undergraduate business program, that we ‘teach out’ the program for all of you that are here now,” Garrett wrote.
I received the news while I was working on my accounting homework with sophomore Ben Walls. This was the first time I had heard any indication that the business major would come to a close. After taking a break to discuss the news, Ben and I sat down to finish our business homework and realized that we couldn’t. Having registered for business classes about a week prior and realizing that my major will cease to exist after this year was too much of a distraction.
I am a current business major that came to Warren Wilson in the hopes of leaving the school with a degree in sustainable business. Prior to transferring to the college I was an art major. I was attracted to the uniqueness of this school and its emphasis on the art of craftsmanship, farming and creative writing. Being in a location where you are constantly changing gears and using different parts of your brain to transition from school, to work, to play, to service, I thought my artistic needs could be met at a school that breeds, demands and expects creativity in its everyday functions. When I sat down and scrutinized my interests while mapping out a potential major, I thought of my interests in becoming a psychologist, filmmaker, an artist, or maybe even an architect. I began searching for a major that could accommodate all of my interests. It became clear to me that my career path might be more entrepreneurially based. I quickly realized that business is at the core of everything. But I didn’t want to become a business major at any college. I wanted to be a business major at Warren Wilson College.
The news from the first email from Garrett had people frightened, perplexed and wanting more information. This email was the first public indication that the business program would cease to exist. Faculty first heard the news about the business program in a faculty meeting that took place hours before Garrett sent out the email. Faculty and students were not included in the discussion prior to the decision to terminate the program. “Our accrediting body is very clear on who does and doesn’t make decisions about the curriculum,” said Garrett in an interview Nov. 19.
The idea that this decision was made solely for financial reasons is a misconception. Every so often Warren Wilson looks at the top liberal arts colleges for comparison sake. This process is called benchmarking. Through Garrett’s observations, those top schools to which she compared Warren Wilson, all had economics departments that would lead into a one year MBA program.
“There are so many facts that I want to share, but I can’t,” said Garrett. “It’s complicated. It isn’t solely a budget decision or a numbers decision. It’s about finding a way to better deliver an education to students that puts us in line with the best small liberal arts colleges,” said Garrett.
Nov. 13, after the email was sent out, Ben Wall quickly organized a group of dozens of business majors, minors and other students invested in the program to talk about ways that they can fight the proposed closing of their department. And the next day in their classes, many business majors voiced their concerns.
Senior and business major Chris Marshall, currently working on his thesis, said, “In my senior year, it does not feel right at all.”
“What about those people who cannot see themselves in any other major but love Wilson?” said Hannah McMerriman.
Garrett stated in the email to business majors that “the College will honor its commitment to you by offering you the classes you need to finish your major here.”
According to Garrett, the contracts will most likely be short and contingent upon student interest in the business program. “We have already heard from practitioners in the field who have some interest,” she said. “Me and Ben Feinberg are going to start having those conversations pretty rapidly. We know what this year looks like, but we aren’t sure what next year will look like. But we will try to figure out who is teaching what very rapidly.”
But is this short-term type of teacher who we want to include in our thoughtful community? Will they be as invested in their teaching, and in the mission of the college, in the same way that other faculty members are?
I transferred from a large University to Warren Wilson for my sophomore year. I felt as though the size of the institution drew the focus away from the unique and personalized education that I so badly craved. I felt as though I were on a conveyor belt being handed credits by my teachers so I could graduate and receive my diploma. “Teaching out” seems similar to this.
Enrique Timas, a junior business major said, “There is no point receiving a business major from a school that won’t have a business program. For those who aren’t into any other major, does it only makes sense for us to leave?” said Timas.
On Monday, Timas announced that he, among other business majors on the basketball team, will be transferring from Warren Wilson.
The termination of the department brings up an important question: Who are we losing as a result of this decision?
The business department has attracted students from all over the world. Eight out of the 30 international students are business majors. The department is also more diverse than most other majors in terms of race and ethnicity. But, with the closing of this program, Warren Wilson may lose some of that diversity which it is arguably already lacking.
In the past, a student from Ireland has received a scholarship from the British Council N.I. for the Study USA program. The scholarship allows students the chance to receive 24 business credits as well as six elective credits. John McCaul is from Northern Ireland and is currently attending the college through the Irish American Scholars Program. McCaul, who recently spoke to the British Council, says, “Indeed, if the business department is discontinued, the British Council will no longer be able to offer Warren Wilson College as a choice on its list of colleges,” said McCaul.
Now business majors are faced with the difficult decision of where to go from here. Shall we transfer? Shall we change majors? Shall we finish out our degree as the major is “taught out”?
Hayden Holbert, a freshman, says that “a large part of my enrollment in the college was due to the existence of a sustainable business program.”
Holbert and his father run a farm in Wisconsin that began six years ago. He explains the large disconnect between the consumer and supplier. “Growing vegetables wasn’t the issue, it was selling them.” Holbert’s decision to become a sustainable business major was based on his interest in educating himself in small business practices. A reason why so many small farms are driven out by larger corporations like Monsanto stems from a lack of understanding how business works.
“If you don’t understand business, you can become a pawn to someone who does,” said Holbert.
The majority of Wilson students didn’t enroll to become educated in running a large corporation. In fact, within the department’s framework, students are taught sustainable business practices that many corporations fail to implement. Thus, Holbert said, “If you want to fight against it, you need to have an understanding of how these corporations run.”
What will the future of Warren Wilson hold? A drop in retention? A school of economists? A conveyor belt?
Although the sustainable business program may be viewed as small, there is a strong following full of tenacious individuals motivated to make something of their own and use their business skills and language to help them be the change in the world that they wish to see. In the words of Paula Garrett, “The entrepreneurial spirit of our students is incredible.”