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Andy Boynton

innovation. leadership. strategy.
Let’s Hear it for the Ivory Tower

It’s a refrain often heard inside as well as outside of higher education: Business schools need to be more “relevant.” They ought to be “practical” in their approach to education—more focused on applied skills, more in step with current trends, more geared to success in the “real world.” In other words, business schools need to get out of the “Ivory Tower” and into the “here and now.”

And, who would argue with the idea that business schools are there to help groom our graduates for the world that will start honking at them as soon as they drive off campus for the last time as students?

But it’s worth taking a closer look at this “real world” that awaits our students—and I’m talking specifically about undergraduate students.

I look out and see a global arena in which innovation is not a luxury. It is the rule of law that must be followed by almost anyone seeking to jump out into the open market. And, what is an innovation, other than an idea that is discovered, and then disseminated? It’s an idea that alters the ways in which organizations compete and processes are applied. It changes the way customers are touched and people are led.

The unconventional truth is that to be successful, our students will have to become more attuned to the world of ideas. And this requires no small amount of intellectual curiosity, a broad bandwith of things that they will find interesting, intellectually.

All of which is another way of saying: Let’s hear it for the Ivory Tower! It’s up there, in the tower, that our students will learn how to think. It’s there that they will pile up the reserves of intellectual energy that serve them well into adulthood.

I believe that our students, as future leaders of organizations, will have to be rigorous thinkers, first of all. They will need to become citizens of what New York Times columnist David Brooks recently referred to as “the cognitive age,” which demands perpetual learning. Later they could pick up the skills that will make them better managers and business professionals.

To prosper in the Cognitive Age, our students will have to analyze complex problems and understand subtle, multi-layered concepts. They’ll have to work with new and old ideas alike, applying them to a broad array of circumstances—many of which, in our global future, could scarcely be foreseen at the moment. That’s a path to remarkable leadership and innovation, in an increasingly complicated and hyper-competitive world.

Management education, as it is often crafted today, may not put students on this particular path. In many cases, we have shrunk the art of management into a superficial list of “how-to’s,” and into managerial jargon. We have often put the accent on short-term skills, rather than on preparing students to be more reflective and discerning for life.

I believe management education has also become too focused on career development and training. Yes, we should enthusiastically support the career aspirations of our students, and we should strive to meet the staffing needs of firms that recruit at our business schools. But we can do this and, at the same time, build curriculum that prepares future managers and leaders to be better thinkers. We can and should teach them to work with big ideas, to use data and facts, synthesize information, and consider different points of view (while staying alert to the ever-present ethical challenges).

How do we get moving on this path?

I answer part of the question with just three words: arts and sciences. Wherever possible, schools of management should be more porous, more integrated into the intellectual life of liberal-arts universities. Intense exposure to the basic disciplines—across the arts and sciences as well as the full range of management disciplines—is essential. It’s a critical way of helping future managers to become more thoughtful about the issues they will confront.

At the Carroll School of Management, for example, we have recently launched an initiative to develop a stronger learning community among undergraduate students. Called “Portico” and geared initially to freshmen, Portico is a port of entry into the vibrant Boston College experience, and into the Jesuit tradition of liberal-arts learning with a particular focus on serious ethical thought. An interdisciplinary team of management and Arts and Sciences faculty devised the curriculum, which also includes an exploration of innovative trends in the Boston economy, as well as leadership, industry and strategic analysis—all from the points of view of the functional disciplines. We want students to reflect on some important big pictures before they dive into the detail.

The point is to infect our students with a lifelong desire to learn—and to relearn all through their careers. We want them to move about easily in the world of ideas, to become adept at finding ideas and moving them through organizations. We want them to learn how to learn—from day one.

That’s what they’ll find in the Ivory Tower. And that’s what I call “relevant,” the most important career step our students will ever take.