Why then, do some alumni still have the perception that Oberlin and business aren’t compatible? Wendy Miller, director of Career Services, believes the reason in part has to do with Oberlin’s strong, yet “elusive values.”
“It’s always bothered me that Oberlin values have been interpreted by some to mean ‘you can only work for a nonprofit,’” she says. “I want Obies to broaden their perspective about ways they can bring about meaningful change. I’ve always said I’d much rather have an Obie be the CEO of a chemical company than someone else.”
'87, a managing director at Bear Stearns and Company in New
York, presents a session on mergers and acquisitions.
If Oberlin is housing a liberal arts establishment that looks with suspicion or ignorance at the business sector, it is hardly alone: in liberal arts colleges around the country, many hold this view. The issue flared up last year in a Chronicle of Higher Education article called “The Liberal Arts as a Bulwark of Business Education.” Author William Durden, president of Dickenson College, argued that American educational institutions should revisit the now-abandoned dream of early educational leaders to create colleges that would produce leaders who possessed “the comprehensive knowledge and virtue needed to build a just, compassionate, and economically sustainable democracy.”
Such liberal arts institutions were supposed to provide intellectual capital for people in all fields, including business. In part, this vision was a reaction to British education, which was targeted to the elite and disdained the idea of trade altogether.
“There was some anti-Semitism involved in this historically,” Durden wrote. “The idea of the money handlers was always a negative one.” The vision was also a reaction to the early colonial colleges, which were theological in origin and disinterested in the whole of mundane life.
“Business still makes the academy uneasy,” Durden
continued. “There’s an attitude that students who go
into business have somehow lost their innocence. It’s often
subtle, just as racism is subtle.
For the Oberlin alumni who
have conquered the business world, this sort of attitude seems
like an affront to liberal arts values. Take Michael Marks, for example:
he left Oberlin in 1973 with bachelor’s and master’s
degrees in psychology. He went on to earn an MBA at Harvard and
is now CEO of Flextronics International, a multibillion dollar
of electronics manufacturing services that employs 100,000 people
in 29 countries. Marks says he has no problem exercising his personal
values in his job—values formed by his “solid, Midwestern,
social democrat family” and shaped by Oberlin and other institutions.
all about how you treat people, how you respect people, what kind
of processes you put in place,” says Marks, who was named
2003 CEO of the year by Business Electronics magazine,
which lauded this “innately curious, effervescent executive [who turned]
Flextronics from a moribund $93-million contract manufacturer to the world’s
largest electronics manufacturing services provider.”
“Besides doing everything to take care of our people in an appropriate manner, I’m not at all autocratic,” Marks says. “I’m very much a consensus builder and have an egalitarian approach to management. That fits with those liberal arts influences.”
Marks rejects the idea that people who go into business are somehow betraying their liberal arts roots. “That’s narrow thinking, and it doesn’t serve institutions well,” he says. “Oberlin is served well by people who go on to be successful at whatever they choose to be. Being true to the liberal arts means having an expanded view of the world and accepting people from all walks of life.”
Other similarly minded alumni believe that Oberlin and its liberal arts siblings would be well-served by such an expansive view—and furthermore, that the business world needs more liberal arts graduates. Take Leanne Cupp Wagner ’76, who became dismayed when her PhD program at Cornell required that she keep narrowing the focus of her studies. She preferred a broader application of her knowledge over specialization—“I like to have my grubby little paws in everything,” she says. Instead, Wagner finished up a master’s program in genetics and then enrolled in business school—just in time for the biotechnology boom. Pharmaceutical companies were searching for people with backgrounds in both science and business. Now, she’s the vice president for strategy at Wyeth Technical Operations and Product Supply, where she guides strategy, capital management, and communications for the company’s global supply chain.
Wagner was once accused by a student of “working for the man” when she came back to Oberlin for a career panel, but she certainly sees no contradiction in “doing good versus doing well.”
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