Would closing business schools save the humanities? Dr. William Major thinks so. Dr. Major is a professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford. In an interesting essay published in the July 28 issue of Inside Higher Ed titled “Close Business Schools/Save the Humanities,” he suggests that closing all the business schools (“B-schools”) would save the humanities, save schools money, and make the world a better place. As an educator with an undergraduate degree in history, an MBA, and a doctorate in higher education management, I was obviously intrigued by Dr. Major’s analysis.
His first argument is based on his analysis of the higher education market. Because the pay differential for business professors is about 30 percent greater than the pay for humanities professors, closing the B-schools would save institutions money in salary. He argues that the instructional activities and the lifestyle benefits of both B-school and humanities faculties are the same, and thus should not be paid differently.
Two economics-based supply-and-demand questions he recommends administrators and B-school professors ask are “Does the B-school professor bring more value to the university?” and “Does she generate more student hours?” Unless she’s a superstar professor bringing fame to the university, Dr. Major believes the answer to both questions is “no.” But is that really the case?
I searched the National Center for Educational Statistics site for information listing graduates of colleges. There I found Table 318.20, “Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, by Field of Study: Selected Years, 1970-71 through 2011-12.”
According to this NCES table, in 1975-1976 (my senior year at Duke University), approximately 16.3 percent of college bachelor’s degrees issued were in the humanities, and approximately 15.5 percent of college bachelor’s degrees issued were in business.
Fast forward to 2011-2012. Bachelor’s degrees in the humanities comprised 16.5 percent, and bachelor’s degrees in business comprised 20.5 percent of degrees conferred. That change, on its own, doesn’t appear to justify the differential in faculty pay.
However, in looking at the master’s degrees conferred during the same two periods, some justification may be found. Master’s degrees in humanities decreased from 11.7 percent overall to 8.0 percent, while master’s degrees in business increased from 13.4 percent to 25.4 percent of overall master’s degrees conferred. During that same period, total master’s degrees conferred grew by 138 percent, and master’s degrees in business grew at a much higher rate (350 percent) than master’s degrees in humanities (61.8 percent).
The increase in MBAs conferred is notable for two reasons. First, more MBAs are focusing on social sciences like social entrepreneurship and looking for jobs in non-profits, NGOs, and community-oriented organizations like chambers of commerce, as noted in a 2012 article in Bloomberg Business Week.
Second, graduate students usually select a degree that will boost their career prospects. With the large increase in demand for master’s degrees in business over the past 35 years, it would be logical that there would be more demand for business school professors.
Most accrediting bodies require master’s programs to be taught by faculty with doctoral degrees. Over the 35-year period examined above, humanities doctoral graduates increased from 5,461 to 8,733 (60.0 percent growth, nearly matching the 61.8 percent increase in master’s graduates) and business doctoral graduates increased from 906 to 2,531 (179.4 percent growth, less than the 350 percent growth in master’s graduates) with most of the degree growth occurring from 2005-2006 to the present. The combined bachelor’s and master’s humanities graduates increased from 187,815 in 1975-76 to 355,200 in 2011-12 (89.1 percent growth). The percentage of humanities degrees that were conferred at the master’s level decreased from 19.7 percent in 1975-1976 to 16.9 percent in 2011-2012.
During the same two periods, combined bachelor’s and master’s graduates in business increased from 185,763 to 558,386 (200.6 percent growth). Just as importantly, the percentage of business degrees that were conferred at the master’s level increased from 22.9 percent to 34.3 percent over the same period. It is more than likely that the increase in the number of master’s in business students/graduates that was greater than the rate of growth of business doctoral degrees granted created an imbalance in the faculty candidates available to be hired, driving business faculty salaries higher than humanities faculty salaries. Economically, I think the data supports a plausible reason for the disparity in salaries.
Not content to base his argument on economics alone, Dr. Major writes that there is a moral argument for eliminating business schools since “she [the professor] is ostensibly training the next crop of financiers and MBAs whose machinations arguably have had no salutary effects on this democracy.” That’s a strong statement, particularly since the writer assumes that everyone knows the machinations of financiers and MBAs–not to mention the assumption that this group has “machinations” at all. Dr. Major blames all of the global economic problems on businessmen because “they should have known better.”
His argument, however, is too simplistic and ignores the impact of government regulation or deregulation on the economy. Why shouldn’t lawyers and politicians, many of whom may have humanities degrees, share the responsibility for the economy’s collapse? Furthermore, not all businessmen have business degrees. In fact, according to a recent Huffington Post article, one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.
If the business-educated business leaders should have known better, what should the liberal arts-educated CEOs have known in order to avoid the global problems of financial instability? I believe that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of a wider group of individuals with a much broader educational background than Dr. Major acknowledges in his essay.
In the last section of his essay, Dr. Major describes several reports that discuss the current state of the humanities. He asks, “Aside from the typical obeisance to something called ‘critical thinking,’ what are the humanities supposed to do?” His answer: “One of the beauties of the liberal arts degree is that it is meant to do nothing,” Or that, essentially, individuals in liberal arts programs study for enjoyment and learn for the sake of increasing their knowledge of a topic.
On these points, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Major. I just don’t agree that these points justify closing the business schools. My enjoyment of learning was expanded through the liberal arts courses that I took as an undergraduate. The author asks the question, “Does she (the student) suffer for this pleasure?” and states that the answer is likely “yes,” because of our political and cultural economy.
The significant investment of time and money to complete an undergraduate liberal arts degree and a master’s degree is one of the pressure points that a student may “suffer.” And, yes, admittedly, the data supports that liberal arts bachelor’s graduates earn less than those with degrees in business, engineering, and computer science. However, liberal arts graduates who continue their educations and complete a master’s degree catch up on the lifetime earnings statistic.
Dr. Major calls for a vision of the university that respects and reveres the humanities and dismantles the industrial ideology and puts the university back together. That idealized version of a university has all but disappeared as the demand for bachelor’s degrees in business has increased. Dr. Major chooses not to embrace the case that liberal arts provide graduates with the tools to survive in a rapidly changing world. He instead recommends that they observe the world and make judgments that are not influenced by “the conflation of economic value with other notions of value.”
The recommendation is noble, but will it survive the critically thinking mind of a liberal arts degree graduate? I think not.
 Includes degrees in Area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies; English language and literature/letters; Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; Multi/interdisciplinary studies; Philosophy and religious studies; Theology and religious vocations; and Visual and performing arts.