By Elias Hinderberger, Guest Writer
As a business student at a liberal arts college I am constantly asking myself why I am in college at all. I know that the likely return on investment in this degree will make it out to be a bad financial choice. I know that WWC’s business program is not one that will make me a shoe-in at grad schools or large, famous organizations. I also know that I (and many other business students at WWC) did not choose this school for the ROI or the grad school placement or even the top-notch job at a top-notch business.
I choose WWC to be my business school because of the ethos of sustainability, empathy, conscientiousness and proactive/ direct action that is apparent when looking at alumni accomplishments, student discussions and activities as well as the marketing campaigns the school launches. It is clear to anyone who visits the college (or reads WWC material) that there is something different about Wilson. It is visible in our landscaping, where native grasses replace the neatly trimmed lawns that are prominent at other liberal arts colleges. It is visible in our cafeteria at lunchtime, where students dress eccentrically and they love it. It is visible everywhere you look, but most importantly, it is visible in our curriculum.
Now, with the potential closure of the business department on the horizon, I cannot help but feel betrayed. I also feel perplexed by what seems to be a blatant hypocrisy of this decision. But let me tackle one thing at a time.
I used to believe that I came to a school where sustainability, in every sense, is the utmost priority, and where students are given the tools to create positive and lasting social and environmental change. I always saw the business program as an integral piece of this worthy cause. I believed that the unique business background WWC would leave me with would allow me to empathetically help people and the planet and prove that businesses can be engines for good.
Wilson business teachers understand the holistic nature of business within the community in which it exists, as well as how the more abstract subjects such as the spiritual and emotional state of an entrepreneur powerfully affect the businesses that they open. The actions of a company do not define its level of sustainability or whether it is or is not a positive force in the world. Instead, the motivation in which the organization finds its roots is infinitely more important. If an organization were a plot of land, profits would be the grasses. They hold everything in place and fight erosion, but a good steward of the land knows that it would be a shame to create a monoculture of entire plot by growing lawns. Instead, the grasses are torn up, composted, and used to fertilize the vegetables, trees, and fruits that now are planted where the grasses once stood. Instead of having wide expanses of wasteful pastures, there now exists a place that fills a community need and reflects the diversity and complexity of its environment.
The business professors at Wilson have identified this apparent conflict between profit orientation and sustainability as something that needs particular attention. Here it is taught that through combining an esoteric and holistic study of oneself and one’s principles with the business knowledge needed to start a company, students who graduate will naturally be led to open companies that inherently project the values that WWC has instilled in their hearts.
Given Warren Wilson’s reputation as a school ahead of its class in regards to sustainable practices and community service, a business school at WWC has the potential to attract a very particular kind of entrepreneur, one who is truly committed to making positive change. With, perhaps, a few adjustments to the business curriculum, this school has the potential to have a worthwhile positive impact on how business is done in the future, an invaluable step on the road to sustainability. With a cooperative effort between the faculty and the administration we have the potential to create something truly magnificent and powerful.
WWC is a small school, and it has the potential to dominate a niche market that is large enough to sustain the college. The business department has the potential to transform into one of the most valuable, unique and appealing programs this school has to offer. It can also become a valuable asset for the WPO and students in other departments.
The business program could be expanded to include classes for people who are working on different degrees, but will need business skills to be successful in their post college ventures. This includes artists and writers and would be farmers, so that they may have a leg up in the hyper competitive field they are entering. Any student who is interested in fields that are not status quo will also likely need to start their own company. The business major and a business education are incredibly empowering tools for WWC students as they set out into the world with the aim of creating positive change.
A renewed business program could create partnerships between the students of the department and different crews. I know from my personal work experience and from conversations I have had with members and bosses of other crews that there is a serious need for business consultation on this campus. Crews operating without records of their own inventory or expenditures are sure to waste more than they need to. Work crews often fail to use basic accounting methods to do things like follow output and input trends over time simply because they do not know how and have never even considered the opportunity that exists with these activities. Crew members are often focused only on the actual function of the crew, and rightly so. They joined the garden or the farm or the fiber arts crew because they wanted to garden, farm or create fibrous art, not because they wanted to learn how to make ledgers and balance sheets.
Wilson has the resources to fix these crew related problems available right in its student body. The only boundary to the creative and positive application of young, business oriented, entrepreneurial minds is our collective imagination. But one thing is for certain; the business students who are and will be attracted to Wilson are a resource that would be a terrible thing to squander.
This brings me to my last point. Right beside “civic engagement”, “innovative education”, “environmental responsibility” and “social and economic justice” on Warren Wilson’s list of core values is “Inclusivity, international and cross-cultural understanding.” The termination of the business school runs contrary to the first five stated values, but to none of them is this decision more destructive than to this last one. The business department is one of the most diverse of all majors at WWC. Compared to other departments, it has a notably higher percentage population of older students, international students and students of color. Without this diversity, it will be significantly more difficult to foster any sort of inclusivity and international/ cross-cultural education. This value is an integral piece of creating well rounded students who are prepared to make the world a better place, and without it students will lose valuable perspective that promises to make them better people and more effective advocates, whatever their cause may be.
Regardless of the justifications, the termination of the Wilson Business Department will be an action that the students and the administration will regret. They will know in their hearts that Wilson has taken a big step backwards on its quest for true sustainability. Sustainability is a long view approach to business, and the move to close the business department is extremely short sighted. They will know in their minds that Wilson missed its opportunity to truly shine as a unique liberal arts college. After all, the lack of business programs at other liberal arts colleges has been heralded as a reason to shut down the department. Do we really think that by blending in we will stand out for more students than we currently attract? Did we model ourselves after other schools when we admitted a black student two years before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka? Did we model ourselves after other schools when the Triad was created? Warren Wilson has always done things differently with pride, and this dismantling of the business program is akin to the replacement of native grasses and gardens with lawns and flowerbeds. The duplication of the status quo in this educational institution runs contrary to everything I have heard, seen and felt about Wilson. Are the board members, faculty, administrators and students of this school convinced that what we need to do is blend in? Is that what we need as members of this community? And most importantly, as always, is that what we need as caretakers of this planet and the future of its inhabitants?