All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1965

For the Birds

Dr. Curtiss is Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Economic Education and super­vises the Business Fellowship Program outlined in this article.

Businessmen have been mildly shocked by recent indications of a growing disrespect among college students for business as a voca­tion. “The word on the campus,” according to one reporter, “is that business is for the birds.” Is this a reasonable conclusion? And, if so, what can be done about it?

Some of this apparent lack of in­terest in business might be attrib­uted to the growing opportunities for college graduates in other fields. Nevertheless, many busi­nessmen are concerned that their image on campus should be so unat­tractive. Recruiters return from college interviews, reporting stu­dent scorn for business as a voca­tion, with businessmen pictured as working in a high-pressure, con­formist atmosphere with super­ficial values. Some describe business as an “intellectual Siberia.” Statistics seem to support these alarmist views. One-fourth of the college graduates go on to gradu­ate school, and the proportion is growing; 84 per cent of a recent graduating class at Harvard went to graduate school. Some of these, of course, will find their way into business; but greater opportuni­ties in teaching, research, and gov­ernment service, both domestic and foreign, also open up to the gradu­ate student. From one leading col­lege, nearly as many graduates en­tered the Peace Corps as went di­rectly into business.

Furthermore, recruiters for business say the top men in the graduating class are “getting away.” As one recruiter put it: “No sooner does a man show any ability at all than the profs are on his back to get him into teaching or research.” There can be no doubt that opportunities for col­lege graduates, outside of business, have increased tremendously. In teaching alone, the opportunities have mushroomed. With a growing proportion of a rapidly increasing population going to colleges and graduate schools, teaching and ad­ministrative staffs must grow apace.

To Man the “Great Society”

Government becomes ever more involved in the “great society,” with world-wide military installa­tions, welfare services at home, public housing projects, highways, hospitals, regulatory agencies, to mention just a few. All these tax-supported activities draw heavily upon the young talent emerging from our colleges. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is aware that the government takes more than two-fifths of our produc­tion. And beyond this powerful magnet of seemingly unlimited funds, the government further ex­ercises the power to draft some of its manpower.

In view of the widening oppor­tunities for college graduates out­side of business, businessmen must face up to this growing competi­tion. Some are attempting to strengthen their recruiting pro­grams. A few offer summer jobs to students with a hope of attract­ing them to permanent spots after graduation. And some are discover­ing that serious students may be less interested in promises of lavish entertainment and fringe benefits than in genuine and lasting intel­lectual satisfactions that can be had by contributions in the world of business.

But how does one overcome the idea, said to be prevalent among a growing number of graduates, that “business is a dirty word”; that “business is for the birds!”?

If the image is correct, then of course this is the image that should prevail. But if this is a mis­taken image, as many business­men and others believe, then it should be corrected.

How do young people formulate their ideas about business? Some simply observe what goes on around them. Some of their im­pressions doubtless are gained in their homes. But a great many are guided by what they hear from their teachers, both in high school and college. If a professor believes that the world of business is popu­lated by a high proportion of dim­witted, money-grubbing, material­istic individuals, then it would not be surprising if his students come to hold such views.

Improvements Underway

It is to offset such a possibility that business firms, often in coop­eration with colleges, have devel­oped a variety of programs aimed at improving the business image among teachers and the academic image among businessmen.

A single teacher may influence several thousand young students in his classes and by his writings. This, of course, is as true of Eng­lish, science, history, and mathe­matics teachers as it is of those who teach economics or political science. All may have a bearing on the stu­dent’s image of business.

One of the newer developments for recruiting young men from col­leges, and at the same time im­proving the business image on the campus, is to be found in the “Uni­versity Relations” departments in business firms. Small firms can hardly afford the luxury of such specialization, but a number of large firms can and do, and with apparent success.

Some firms have made it possible for a professor, on sabbatical or on leave, to spend a “year in indus­try.” This can be especially bene­ficial to both parties if the profes­sor has matured to the point where he can make a genuine contribution to the operation of the business. For a young man just out of gradu­ate school, the danger is that he may find himself doing some rou­tine job which may be important to the operation of the business, but which may not give him the per­spective of a firm which he seeks. Some college deans have been wary of such programs, fearing they may permanently deplete their staff of teachers.

In a few instances, a “swap pro­gram” has been arranged, where a businessman tries his hand at teaching and a professor at busi­ness. This can be most profitable to both; but circumstances would seem to limit this arrangement for many individuals.

A program which holds great promise, and already has shown beneficial results, is the industry-education seminar. Dr. Thomas J. Hailstones, Dean of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati, describes his experience with such seminars in the May/June, 1965, issue of Steelways. He tells of bringing together 50 or 60 econom­ics professors and business execu­tives for the express purpose of “rubbing their intellects together.” For the professors, he says: “Text­book principles take on new mean­ing and excitement for the college professor when they are seen in practice in their original context. The enthusiasm and knowledge of the professor is enhanced when he analyzes and discusses the com­plexities of problems with his in­dustrial counterpart. I have watched that enthusiasm and knowledge carried back to the classroom.” The advantages to business are obvious.

An outgrowth of many of the various programs which bring professors and businessmen together is of ten a consultant relationship between the professor and a busi­ness firm. The special talents of a professor thus may be called into use from time to time and over a period of years. This, of course, can be directly beneficial to the re­lationship between “town and gown.”

FEE’s Business Fellowship Program

Shortly after World War II, the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion started a program to bring college professors and business­men together during the summer months. The eighteenth year of this program has just been com­pleted, and arrangements are now being made for the summer of 1966.

In this Program, a professor, selected by a firm from a number of applicants, spends six weeks at the headquarters of the firm in an effort to gain a comprehensive view of the entire operations of the busi­ness. In 1965, 72 professors from 66 different colleges and univer­sities spent the summer with 54 business firms located throughout the country. Nearly 1,200 profes­sors have had this experience dur­ing the past 18 years. Most of them are teachers of economics, busi­ness, and related subjects pertain­ing to the broad principles of busi­ness and the philosophy of manage­ment with all its ramifications. A few have come from English de­partments—especially business communications—and from politi­cal science, sociology, guidance and placement, and history.

The Foundation’s role is merely one of bringing the two parties to­gether. The Foundation encour­ages business firms to sponsor such fellowships and accepts ap­plications from the professors. One necessary detail in processing the applications is to attempt a matching of the specifications listed by business firms with spe­cial requests of professors. The business firm pays the professor his traveling expenses and a sti­pend intended to cover his living expenses for the six weeks. The financial contribution of the firm is substantial, though this may not fully offset the costs to the professor of other employment op­portunities he has had to forego, plus the added expense of main­taining his family at home during his absence.

What Are the Benefits?

It is always difficult, if not im­possible, to measure the benefits of such a program. Each profes­sor is invited to report his experi­ences to the business firm at the close of his study. These reports vary from a simple thank-you letter to a detailed, extensive analysis of some special problem of management. A well-done project, of course, may be of direct bene­fit to the business and a source of considerable satisfaction to the professor.

But the greatest benefits, both to business firms and to the pro­fessors, are somewhat intangible and pertain to the long run. A pro­fessor has an opportunity to check his textbook theories against what actually happens, and this helps him to become a more effective teacher. If he is a counselor or placement officer, he can advise his students with more confidence. In their reports on their fellowships, a number of professors have said: “This was the most profitable sum­mer I have ever spent.”

A business firm may receive help from a professor that will show up on the operating state­ment. However, this is rare and an “extra dividend,” if it occurs. A number of heads of businesses have said it is beneficial to have a professor come in from the outside and question management men about their work. It encourages the men to view their jobs in the perspective of the entire business.

The chief benefit is that such business orientation may help the college professor do his job better. If so, his students may become bet­ter recruits for the business com­munity. And, above all, these col­lege-business fellowships should help to create a more faithful business image on the campus.

  • W.M. Curtiss served as executive secretary of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York.