July 25, 2016
Ask Dean Peter Brews what keeps him awake at night, and he’ll tell you it is the young professionals he is responsible for. Recalling the recent worries he had as a father of two undergraduates, very soon after arriving at the school he realized he still faced these concerns, only multiplied by 6,000. That responsibility made him commit himself to making sure that every one of those students would come to the Moore School, have their lives changed, and at the end of their college careers, have the skills to go out into the world and get good jobs. that’s the fundamental thing that keeps me awake at night,” says Brews. "That’s what I worry about all the time and that’s why we are all here doing what we do.”
That commitment to Moore School students has led to what Brews calls a large-scale transformation of the school over the next five years. This transformation — the Undergraduate Excellence Initiative — will change the curriculum, strengthen majors, make students more employable and sharpen soft skills necessary to succeed in their careers. The most significant transformation, Brews said, will be the transformation of expectations.
“We’re expecting more of our students,” he says. “We’re asking more of our faculty. We are expecting that our staff provide a higher level of service to our students, and we’re doing all of that to make sure that we are preparing our students for the world that is coming.”
Demanding more from students Nancy Buchan, associate dean for undergraduate studies, says on an international scale, American business students — including those at the Moore School — are coming up short. Buchan says in her experience with international business students, which includes some of the top students at the University of South Carolina, there are challenges when compared to their global peers.
“I can tell you when students go abroad to the 50 best business schools in the world, they are challenged to their absolute limit,” she says. “They are pushed to a degree of rigor they don’t often see here in our classrooms, and I dare say that most classrooms in the United States wouldn’t provide them. that was a bit of a clarion call that we need to up our game.” Brews notes that business education 20 years ago was based on ensuring students gained the technical knowledge and skills the degree required through course work and examinations that ultimately led to graduation. Today that is no longer sufficient. “They’ve got to be able to take that knowledge and to go out into the corporate world, work on a problem, and show that they can use their knowledge not just to answer an exam, but to solve a problem that a current partner or a current business faces,” Brews says. “We have to make sure we give that downstream, experiential learning to our students where they can validate what they have learned and show their employers that they can do things they can be paid for. That’s the task of education today. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.”
The initiative to transform business education at the Moore School began with conversations with faculty, students and employers about what characteristics recent college graduates should have. Employers’ answers were unexpected. When asked to rate the top 10 qualities they sought, the lowest ranked attributes were technical skills such as business acumen, understanding business and how business works. At the top level were soft skills like professionalism, communication, ability to work in teams, leadership, adaptability, resiliency and flexibility.
“The fact that functional skills were nine and 10 didn’t mean they aren’t important,” Brews says. “I think they are just qualifiers. You wouldn’t even get the interview if you didn’t have those functional skills, but the way that you get the job is to show that you have all the other soft skills to add to those functional skills. And that’s one of the reasons the Undergraduate Excellence Initiative has taken the shape that it has.”
“It’s not just a matter of the individual student success — it’s the success of our state and the success of our country,” Buchan says. “We need to do more — we need to push our students more, but push them in the right way.”
A pivotal moment in business education
From changing to a four-year curriculum, to offering specialized concentrations and scholars programs, to an individualized focus on communication skills, to mentorship and service learning, the Moore School is embarking upon a dramatic transformation. “In my mind, we are at a pivotal moment in business education, and I think we can use that to really transform what we’re doing here at the Moore School,” Buchan says.
The Undergraduate Excellence Initiative consists of four pillars: increased academic rigor, stronger and deeper majors, sharper communication skills and enhanced student employability. First, the school is increasing rigor in its classrooms with a focus on providing greater and deeper statistical education. The school is building more statistical training into the curriculum and and demanding more from students not only in the GPA they must maintain to advance, but also in the courses that they take.
“The main thing we are doing is providing greater and deeper statistical education, because we all know that the world now is full of data,” Buchan says. “We need people who understand how to make sense of data, how to ask questions and then how to do the analysis to answer those questions.”
The second pillar of the new initiative is to deepen the majors. Academic departments will offer specialized concentrations to better meet the needs of students once they graduate. For example, some marketing students end up in sales positions. Currently they are not trained in sales. With this initiative a marketing student will have the opportunity to take a sales track or a product development track to specifically meet the needs of employers.
The school is also changing from a two-year to a four-year curriculum, allowing students to begin taking business courses in their freshman year. In the past, most students started their business curriculum in their junior year. In addition, each academic department will have a scholars’ program to challenge the top students, as well as bridging and tracking programs for students who may need assistance.
“Changing to a four-year curriculum takes advantage of students’ passions when they come in,” says Buchan. “Students come into business school wanting to take business courses — entrepreneurship or finance, for example — right away, not wait until their junior or senior year. The new curriculum puts them on the track to do that sooner and take advantage of those passions. Bridging and tracking will ensure that, as we make our curriculum more rigorous, we don’t lose anybody.”
Third, there will be a focus on teaching students the soft skills employers say are most lacking in current college graduates. A business communications initiative across the curriculum is planned where writing, creating presentations and communication are infused in all four years of students’ college career.
Finally, the initiative will develop employability. Freshmen will be exposed to the different majors and career paths through a business-specific University 101 class to help them make career choices that are best suited for them. Students will also be exposed to service learning through the university’s Graduate with Leadership Distinction program and have the opportunity to connect with alumni and the business community through a mentorship program.
“At the end of it all, you’ll have students who’ve learned to work with people, to lead, who’ve faced new problems and struggled their way through them, who’ve been on the ground addressing needs in their community, people who sought out evaluation of both their strengths and weaknesses and are working to improve,” Buchan says of service learning and mentorship. “You’re going to have something that will appeal to the market. But I think what is more important is that you’re probably going to be a lot better person too, not just someone with great skills.”
Something different, something better
Looking ahead, Brews sees a Moore School student who is significantly more quantitatively capable, has more functional expertise and is more professionally adept and sought after. Students will have full information on career paths where they can thrive with guidance from professional mentors. they will be required to be proficient in data management and data analytics at a level the typical business student in the United States will not have. Students will be more committed to community through service learning projects and reach if not exceed the level of business education of their global peers.
“Finally, if you come to the Moore School five years from now, I’m hoping you will find a student who is absolutely capable of doing complex work, writing reports, giving good presentations and doing the work that is going to be required to help the organizations that they are working for be innovative and stay at the efficient frontier of their industry” Brews says.
The Undergraduate Excellence Initiative begins in the fall of 2016 with the new four-year curriculum, increased progression standards and education about the different business majors through University 101 classes and Major Decision Day. Pilot programs to increase employability through mentors, service learning, tracking and group competencies, and more rigorous data education will begin as well.
The initiative, Buchan says, will place Moore School students in the position to fulfill the needs of a marketplace that is demanding something different, something better, with skills it is currently not seeing.
“At the Darla Moore School of Business, we have the best assembly of faculty that we have ever had, including incredible researchers who are leaders in their fields,” says Buchan. “We also, at least according to test scores, have the best raw material we’ve ever seen in terms of the students. We owe it to the students, we owe it to their potential employers, and frankly we owe it to ourselves to realize that potential.”
By Charlene Slaughter
Excerpted from Moore, the alumni magazine of the Darla Moore School of Business.