The Liberal Arts and Business

By Jackie Ross Flaum


John Bryan ’58, who retired in 2001 after more than 25 years as CEO of Sara Lee Corp., steered his company into the international marketplace years before other firms realized the potential there because of his interest in foreign affairs, history and the culture of other places operating in the European marketplace.

At Mariner Investment Group in New York where multimillion-dollar business decisions and ethical questions often intertwine, chairman Bill Michaelcheck ’69 finds that keeping his firm on high moral ground is aided by the issues he dealt with in philosophy and theology classes.

The executive vice president, financial services and administration for Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. in Atlanta, Vicki Gilmore Palmer ’75, walks into a meeting with investment bankers to negotiate and knows she can face whatever challenges arise. Her liberal arts courses at Rhodes honed her thinking and prepared her to deal with all kinds of people in the business world. She finds her study of a wide range of topics enables her to be quick on her feet and justifies her self-confidence that whatever happens in business, she can figure out how to handle it.

All three majored in economics at Rhodes.These stories warm the hearts of the faculty of the Rhodes Department of Economics and Business Administration, especially that of Dr. Pamela Church, department chair and director of the college’s M.S. program in accounting. These success stories reaffirm their belief that requiring Rhodes business majors to have a liberal arts education improves their students’ positions in the marketplace.

“The feedback we’ve received from businesses is that our students have an excellent ability to think and communicate creative solutions to business problems and deal with ethicalquestions. These abilities are very important,” said Church. “If you are going to be at the top level of business, you have to be able to think strategically and deal with highly educated people in high positions.”

A Broader Understanding

John Bryan believes in the value of a person in business having a well-rounded education. He can see how it served him and his company.

“In the early 1970s Sara Lee did not have an international division. Now it does $8-$10 billion a year internationally. At that time, it wasn’t fashionable to do business in Europe,” he said. Operating in the European marketplace was, in fact, “a bit of a contrarian move in those days.”

Bryan, who has served on the Rhodes Board of Trustees, said his college study of history, philosophy, international affairs and political science plus his natural curiosity about other countries — he had traveled in Europe before enrolling in Rhodes — enabled him to learn about international markets, governments, how they worked and why they worked that way.

“Because of my comfort in dealing with other cultures and other issues, we plowed ahead,” he said.

Teaching students to understand, then to know how to act on the connections among history, philosophy, social science and the other liberal arts is one of the primary jobs of Rhodes professors.

“Our students come out of Rhodes and in a couple of years they are climbing the corporate ladder. While business skills may help them the first few years, they need something more for the long term ... they need a deeper understanding of what life at work is all about,” said Dee Birnbaum, associate professor of general management and human resource management.

Michaelcheck, who is a former executive vice president at Bear Stearns in New York, believes his liberal arts education made him more flexible, more open to new ideas.

“You could say a Rhodes education gives a broader understanding of life and enables students not to be surprised when things in life are not black and white,” he said.

When he went to Harvard University’s business school, Michaelcheck said he was well prepared. In terms of writing papers, reading and doing outlines, he was far better prepared than most of his fellow students.

In fact, he said, the older he gets the more he appreciates all those humanity, philosophy, history, English and sociology courses he took at Rhodes.

“I have made decisions in business — and in my personal life — and the quality of those decisions was improved by my liberal arts education,” he said.

It is true, he added, that what is practiced in school becomes habit and what becomes habit is either a help or a hindrance in the business world.

The question of ethics, for example, looms large in the business world, Michaelcheck said.

“Business people, as you know too well, are faced with ethical dilemmas, no matter what business they’re in. Almost everyone seeks to be honest, but sometimes the right is just not clear. Having read through philosophical debates and ethical discussions at Rhodes and grappled with these problems was good preparation,” he said.

Teaching students to deal with ethical questions is a high priority of the Rhodes economics/business administration faculty. Not one, but two, courses in business ethics are offered: one for undergraduates, the other for students enrolled in the master of science in accounting program. The one for undergrads is optional and open to non-majors who can also take it to fulfill a humanities requirement. For students in the M.A. program seeking their CPA designation, it’s a requirement. Discussions of ethics enter into mainline economics and business administration courses as well, says Daniel Arce, the Robert D. McCallum Professor of Economics. According to assistant professor Allan Ryan, who teaches the business ethics classes, “It is imperative for students to have the opportunity to think about and discuss situations before actually facing them.”

Well-Rounded Confidence

Outside the classroom, Vicki Palmer says: “You find when you enter the business world that a good business degree only takes you so far. You have occasion to meet and interact with myriad people. It is so much more important to be conversant about matters in general. Negotiating a deal is having dialogue and conversation,” said Palmer, who began her career at First Tennessee Bank in Memphis.

It isn’t enough, she said, to be smart and witty.

“The world is full of bright people,” she said. “For me, in looking back at how the liberal arts prepared me, I have to say I developed a level of self-assuredness that I could step out and weave a path — I could think my way through it.”

When Palmer joined the Coca-Cola Co. as manager of worldwide pension investments, she found herself with international responsibilities in the pension investments arena for the very first time. It could have been an unnerving experience, but she attributes her preparedness to deal with the world outside the U.S. to her liberal arts education at Rhodes. When she made her first trip abroad to meet with a group of Japanese money managers, she was confident she could handle the challenges.

From the earliest days in the Department of Economics and Business Administration, a broad knowledge of subjects has made Rhodes students highly marketable, said Dr. Sue Legge Wilkie, professor emerita of business administration. She recalled how businesses, especially accounting firms, came tentatively to the campus to interview prospective students. But, she said, once those employers saw the quality of employees available to them at Rhodes, the floodgates opened and businesses began to vie for Rhodes students.

The representative of one large accounting firm once told Wilkie: “Where you can see the difference between Rhodes students and students from business schools is when they need to go into a client’s office. Rhodes students can go into a client’s office and talk about a lot of different things.”

“A liberal arts degree is what he was talking about,” said Wilkie. “The main thing about our students is that they are well rounded. When they go into business they haven’t gotten such a narrow shot at education that they only know one thing.”

Pam Church agrees. “The big four CPA firms like us because we’re a combination of business and the liberal arts. These firms recruit and hire at Rhodes, which they do not do at other small colleges. They extend job offers to seniors, who may not work for them till one or two years later.” Small wonder: Last fall, 100 percent of the students in Rhodes’ M.S. in accountancy program who sat for the CPA exam for the first time passed it, compared to 15 percent nationally. And most years, said Church, graduates enjoy 100 percent placement in local and international firms. While the M.S. program started in the 1990s, when the state passed a law making it a requirement, Rhodes had been teaching undergraduates to pass the CPA exam for years.  

Life Beyond Ledger Books

Michaelcheck, a believer in Rhodes’ historically strong economic/business program, says it isn’t possible to put a price on the value of the liberal arts in living a fuller personal life.

“I read books, I go to plays. I know about things. What I learned about literature, history and other subjects that make my life richer has made me continue to be interested in a variety of topics. I still read good books to this day — and I might not have read if I hadn’t been exposed to it at Rhodes,” he said.

Bryan, who is now helping create a 26-acre, $500 million indoor-outdoor performing arts venue in the heart of Chicago, admits that he serves on corporate boards with many people whose sole interest and focus is the world of business.

“Some of them can be rather boring; however, most of those who rise to the top are people who can see over the ledger books,” he said. Bryan believes that exposing a student to a wide array of knowledge and ideas will add a greater dimension and depth to that person.

For Birnbaum and other faculty members, teaching business is a matter of adding depth to a student’s education by presenting business practices and ideas, then connecting them to underlying theories and cultural or historical contexts.

“It doesn’t serve students well to memorize a new economic theory or business principle and not connect it to something — it doesn’t have any meaning over time,” she said. “We can’t understand how different theories came into being unless we understand the broader and deeper historical influences that fueled the ideas and made them acceptable to people at the time. The work of economist/sociologist Max Weber (who was a historian before he became a sociologist), for example, provides an analytical framework that brings history into organizational analysis and can apparently be used in looking at governments/political economies as well, as I discovered in auditing an international studies course.”

That’s why students come back to her after their graduation and tell her how well prepared they feel they are for a future in the business world.

“Rhodes students can evaluate new business practices because they understand accounting, for example, as a behavioral science — as a way of thinking. It’s not just a way of putting numbers in a row. That’s very different from the way other students learn accounting.”

The Rhodes faculty and the personal interest they show to students is another factor many graduates cite as a reason for their success.

“They cared,” said Palmer. “They took the time with us as individuals. I wanted to be a name in college and not a Social Security number. I found that I was very much a name at Rhodes.” She remembers having class under a tree. She visited in the home of another professor and used to baby-sit his children.

“They became my friends as well as my professors,” Palmer said.

The legendary Ralph C. Hon, the late professor of economics and business administration, picked out students to mentor — some of them before they even enrolled in Rhodes.

Michaelcheck says he was one of “Hon’s kids.” Hon taught Michaelcheck to see the broad picture of economics and the role it plays in the world.

“For whatever reason he picked me out and shepherded me right through. He’s an example of the personal interest/personal relationship that grows at Rhodes. He took groups of us out to dinner, to the Ice Capades and to his house,” Michaelcheck said. “On the other hand, he could be a tough guy — he would kick people out of his class and seemed to get some delight out of it. If you didn’t show an interest, well, he didn’t want anyone in his class who was just checking a box on a list of requirements.”

Hon recruited Palmer out of South Side High School in Memphis. He was her mentor on and off campus.

“Dr. Hon was always there for me, and when I came back from grad school I interviewed for a position (at First Tennessee) because I’d had a summer job there,” she said. It was a job Dr. Hon helped her secure.

Wilkie, who helped begin the master’s program in accounting at Rhodes, still takes pride in the students and their accomplishments. She remembers students who won gold and silver medals in the statewide CPA exam. And she recalls those who used their business degrees and their liberal arts training to make a good career and a good life. Rhodes students succeed, she says, because they know how to think things through.

Thinking Outside The Box

With a background in business and marketing, Tara Kim ’03 entered the Union Planters Bank management training program after graduation. However, she was, admittedly, unfamiliar with banking practices. She didn’t even have an ATM card.

But, she did know how to think, ask questions and make connections between what she learned in class at Rhodes and real-life business situations. As it turns out, those were just the skills she needed for the job.

Starting with orientation, her enthusiasm began to grow. Counting Kim, who is from Germantown, TN, there are 20 people from nine cities in the management program. Executives from Union Planters talked to the class about company strategy, assets, plans, problems — and Kim realized it wasn’t new to her. She had participated in many similar business case discussions in her senior seminar and international marketing classes with Prof. John Planchon.

“Many people said they were overwhelmed and didn’t understand certain aspects of what the executives were saying. They didn’t feel as comfortable as I did,” Kim said.

She’s comfortable asking questions, too. She’s even asked the CEO of Union Planters for information — and he responded. Kim said she got in the habit of asking her professors anything — and speaking her mind about what they told her. She finds the same atmosphere at the bank, where “they want us to ask questions and examine different ways of looking at things. That’s how you learn.”

Her education at Rhodes began to make sense too, she said. The volunteer work with Memphis in May, the Souper Contact student-run soup kitchen, teaching tennis to inner-city children during the summer, those philosophy, English, history and anthropology courses — she began to see how valuable her experience outside the Economics and Business Administration Department was to her career in business.

“My minor was my liberal arts education,” she said. “Those classes taught me to think outside the box. Not everything in business is about numbers.”