'The Best Kept Secret in the Midwest'

AACSB accreditation affirms the Opus College of Business Mission

In the fall 2003 B. magazine – the inaugural issue – I made some statements that, at the time, may have seemed rather boastful. In an article written by Josh Kohnstamm, I claimed that my new role as dean of the Opus College of Business would provide me with my “best opportunity yet to push the envelope of what a business school program can offer … that despite the plethora of business programs nationwide, today’s business world requires skills that go essentially unaddressed by the case-based ‘cohort’ model of MBA education introduced 60 years ago.”

The envelope has now been pushed.

December 2010 marked a decisive moment in the history of our college when the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB) granted us initial business accreditation. Yet this accomplishment is only one sign of the college’s transformation over the past decade. An important and tangible sign, certainly. But let us not lose sight of the fact that AACSB accreditation is not simply an isolated moment in history. Accreditation is an affirmation that our commitment to achieving excellence in educating highly principled global business leaders has been – and will continue to be – fulfilled.

Less than 5 percent of the world’s estimated 13,000 business schools have achieved AACSB accreditation.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of BusinessFor those of us intimately involved in the accreditation process over the past decade, it’s easy to overlook a very simple question: What is the AACSB? The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International is an association of educational institutions, businesses and other organizations devoted to the advancement of higher education in management education. For more than 96 years it has been the premier accrediting agency of collegiate business schools worldwide, providing a specialized, nongovernmental peer review of undergraduate and graduate business administration programs.

AACSB accreditation represents the highest standard of achievement for business schools worldwide and is the hallmark of excellence in management education. Less than 5 percent of the world’s estimated 13,000 business schools have achieved AACSB accreditation.

A Mission-Driven ApproachBefore the start of this century, AACSB accreditation standards were not fully compatible with our university’s philosophy of delivering business education. For 125 years the University of St. Thomas has focused its approach to education on making that education accessible and relevant. This is as true in our liberal arts programs as in our business programs. The Opus College of Business’ mission is quite clear on our commitment to student learning:

Consistent with the Catholic intellectual tradition of the University of St. Thomas, the Opus College of Business educates students and working professionals to become effective, ethical leaders and to be constructive contributors to society.

In the late 1980s, the AACSB began to enhance its accreditation standards so that they became mission focused and aligned more closely to student achievement (outcomes) rather than to school structure. With the most recent 2003 update in AACSB standards, business programs must now demonstrate that they effectively meet the philosophy stated in their mission statements. As we began preparing for the accreditation process, the college was confident that it could not only adhere to our mission but do so in a way that allowed us to compete with the world’s premier business schools.

One of the initial steps in this process was an examination and refinement of our strategic plan. Framing our operating policies and personal behaviors, the strategic plan has guided us in aligning our mission with our practices:

  • We value the Catholic intellectual tradition which provides a philosophical dimension to the means of addressing social issues.
  • We value teaching as an instrument for conveying values, principles and skills.
  • We value relevancy of curriculum in our undergraduate and graduate programs.
  • We value a professionally engaged faculty, qualified to teach and actively involved in their disciplines and communities.
  • We value research and intellectual inquiry to further knowledge in our disciplinary fields and to enhance our own understanding of the changing business environment.
  • We value shared governance.
  • We primarily focus our scholarship and curricula to contribute to the enhancement of business operations through the development, understanding, application and practice of business theory; however, we value all forms of intellectual inquiry and encourage scholarship at the intersection of business and ethics, social justice, leadership or pedagogy.

Our path to accreditation has involved tremendous time, commitment and passion on the part of our leadership, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters.

Preparing the WayAchieving accreditation has not been a short process, nor one carried out by a single person. Our path to accreditation has involved tremendous time, commitment and passion on the part of our leadership, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters. It began in 2001, when the university combined the graduate and undergraduate business divisions to form what is today the Opus College of Business. I began my tenure here in 2002 with my first task that of enhancing our MBA programs and launching the full-time University of St. Thomas MBA in 2003. That program began with 25 pioneering students who believed strongly enough in the reputation and value of a St. Thomas business education to enroll in an untested MBA program.

But while the Full-time UST MBA may have been untested, its underlying philosophy of applied learning was not. Together with founding director Dr. Teresa Rothausen-Vange and the original core faculty, we created an MBA program that challenged the accepted standards of an MBA education. In their 2010 publication Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, three Harvard scholars undertook the task of defining ways in which an MBA education must adapt to meet the changing needs of business and society. In their conclusion, the authors state that a business school must revisit its curricula and place as much emphasis on practice as it does on theory, that it must help “students develop insights into both ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ early in the programs.” They cite notable institutions such as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Chicago Booth as examples of programs that have created leadership laboratories and experiential learning opportunities to provide this emphasis.

Our business school houses what we believe to be the largest ethics faculty in the country, anchored by Dr. Kenneth Goodpaster, David and Barbara Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics.

Right from the start, the Full-time UST MBA program included these very elements in its curricula through its Applied Business Research course and its Leader Development, Ethics and Communication Laboratories. In addition, the Rethinking the MBA authors urge business schools to include a greater focus on business ethics and corporate social responsibility in their curricula … a focus the Opus College of Business has maintained since its earliest days with a combination of required business ethics courses in every program and deliberate infusion of ethics into every business course.

While the Full-time UST MBA was pivotal in our plans to achieve accreditation, it does not exist in isolation, nor is it the only business program of merit and relevance in our portfolio. In preparation for seeking AACSB accreditation, we examined all of our business programs and practices.

At the undergraduate level, we completed an extensive three-year review and revision of our curriculum that was implemented in the fall of 2008. The new undergraduate business curriculum still includes the full liberal arts core, but it also expands the business core by doubling courses in accounting and adding business ethics and operations management. The changes were designed to provide greater depth and breadth of practice and theory within the business administration major, changes that were in response to feedback from employers and other constituents.

In addition, the Evening UST MBA program underwent a careful restructuring in 2003 to assure academic rigor and further elevate its quality. The part-time, evening program had long been the flagship graduate business program of the University of St. Thomas, responsible for educating more than 13,000 graduate business students since its inception in 1974. Alumni of the program are found in leadership positions within every industry and organization across Minnesota. Our goal was to ensure that our alumni continue to achieve in a more competitive, more complex workplace.

We also added two new graduate degree programs. In 2005, the UST M.S. degree in the field of accountancy was established. Collaborative development of curricular objectives between all major accounting firms in the Twin Cities and the college’s accounting faculty achieved unprecedented alignment between the needs of the accounting profession and the integrated curricular and co and extracurricular activities of the program. The same approach was used in creating the UST M.S. degree in the field of real estate.

Each of these additions and changes was made to continue to provide our business students with the best, most relevant business education possible. Ongoing discussion about the transformation of the business school does not reflect negatively on the quality of the education received by students prior to this time. What it does reflect is our awareness of and commitment to staying ahead of changes in our society and in the practice of business. It is a manifestation of the combination of our values and those of the AACSB to strive for and deliver a continuously improving business education experience.

Building the InfrastructureEnhancing the educational experience at the Opus College of Business did not stop at curricular reform. We understood that technology and top facilities were also vital and, despite the slowing economy, the generosity of our benefactors enabled us to provide our students, faculty, staff and the community with the $22 million Schulze Hall, home of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, in downtown Minneapolis in 2005. And, in 2006, we followed that by opening the $25 million McNeely Hall in St. Paul. These are two of the most technologically advanced academic buildings in the country, adding an unparalleled 160,000 square feet of new learning space to the business school.

Schulze Hall and McNeely Hall are two of the most technologically advanced academic buildings in the country.

These new spaces allowed us to build upon two of our school’s strong suits – ethics and entrepreneurship. Our business school houses what we believe to be the largest business ethics faculty in the country, anchored by Dr. Kenneth Goodpaster, David and Barbara Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics. We have integrated ethics teachings into every class within the curriculum and are home to the Center for Ethical Business Cultures and the SAIP Institute, organizations dedicated to assisting businesses and nonprofits in aligning their business practices with their business ethics.

The college is also home to one of a very few schools for entrepreneurship and has been named both a National Model MBA Entrepreneurship Program and a National Model Bachelor’s Entrepreneurship Program by the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Our professional development and research institutes spanning areas such as entrepreneurship, family business and venture capital link the entrepreneurial needs of the business community with the expertise developed over St. Thomas’ long history as a leader in business education. We are proud of our undergraduate major in family business and our Family Business Center’s presence as a conceptual and practical leader in this category.

Creating a Place for Teacher-ScholarsIn preparing for the accreditation process, we placed a great deal of emphasis on recruiting some of the finest and most talented business faculty in the country. The college has added 52 full-time business faculty since 2003 to reach our current total of 105. These are individuals with doctoral degrees from institutions such as Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Texas, University of Nebraska, Michigan State University, Wharton, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and Yale, among others. And to ensure that the college continues to offer a balance of theory and practice in all it does, this roster of full-time faculty is complemented and enhanced by more than 130 adjunct faculty whose professional experience lends additional practicality to our students’ classroom experiences.

Our faculty are far more than talented academic scholars - they are gifted teachers whose passion for mentoring and coaching is equal to their extensive research, consulting and business backgrounds.

Just recruiting talented faculty is not enough, however. As part of our strategic plan, we placed tremendous emphasis on retaining and developing this faculty, and giving them a voice in the continuous development of the college. Junior faculty in our business programs are mentored by more seasoned faculty when they arrive at St. Thomas, providing a crucial bridge between the world of academia and the world of practical application. Our policy of “shared governance” means that the college faculty elect a chair of the faculty to chair the monthly meetings of the college, to represent faculty interests and to serve as part of the college leadership team. In addition, we ensure that our faculty have the time to perform the research critical to their ongoing professional development and credentials, resulting in a highly respected, highly relevant group of professors who not only bring the latest theoretical principles into the classroom … they establish them.

Yet it is important to remember that, despite their doctoral degrees, our faculty are far more than talented academic scholars – they are gifted teachers whose passion for mentoring and coaching is equal to their extensive research, consulting and business backgrounds. This extraordinary group of faculty has chosen St. Thomas because they want to make a difference in the lives of individual students and to pass on their experience and expertise within a relevant, ethical context.

Meeting the StandardsWhen we were confident that our values, mission and goals aligned with the AACSB standards, we filed our application in 2006.

The AACSB has described 21 standards for accredited business schools. All schools seeking accreditation are evaluated against the same set of mission-linked accreditation standards through a rigorous peer review process. In general, the standards deal with the quality, credentials and research of the faculty, facility and students; Assurance of Learning (AOL); and curriculum management.

In broad terms, AACSB requires that the college have processes and support for faculty scholarly research and a portfolio of intellectual contributions consistent with its mission. We must have a critical mass of faculty in the college and across our disciplines and programs to meet the needs of our students. Faculty must have the academic credentials, intellectual accomplishments and professional experience needed to provide quality instruction. And, finally, we need to ensure that students are fulfilling specific learning goals and that we are continually improving our curriculum. In business terms, “assurance of learning” can be translated as a continuous improvement process – a process of improving our curriculum to ensure the best learning among our students. Each program in our portfolio has, since 2002, been rigorously and continuously examined and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of our students and the markets in which they will work.

In November 2010, we were visited by a team of three deans from AACSBaccredited schools for a review of our progress (see the Q&A). The team was, to say the least, impressed. In their final report, team members noted that “The school has made significant progress during the past 10 years in relation to emphasizing its role in research and the production of intellectual contributions. The quantity and quality of output, mainly related to discipline-based scholarship, is impressive, especially given that 50 percent of the faculty’s effort is devoted to teaching.”

They also commented on our student body: “Students at the OCB are highly engaged both inside and outside the classroom. They adhere to an honor code, and the small class sizes allow faculty the opportunity to be highly interactive with students. Additionally, students are extremely involved in extracurricular activities. For example, MBA students have the opportunity to be involved with at least 11 different organizations, including ones that travel to (and win!) competitions.”

The review process was thorough and positive and concluded with an AACSB board vote in late December adding the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business to its prestigious roster of accredited business schools. We treasure the comment from one of our peer team deans: “This business school may be the best kept secret in the Midwest.” We are out to change that!

Our 2020 VisionIn each of my interactions with staff, faculty and students during the accreditation process and since the board vote, I have taken care to emphasize that accreditation is not a destination; rather, AACSB accreditation is confirmation from an unbiased, external party that the Opus College of Business is a premier business school. It is a place where learning is valued, where excellence is fostered and where continuous, ongoing improvement ensures the vitality of the college and the lasting achievement of our alumni. All of us, regardless of our association with the college and the university, can take pride in the fact that we are part of a forward-thinking institution.

The success of the Opus College of Business is only as great as the success of our students and the success of our community.

And we will continue to look to the future. We will continue our process of transformation in service to our students and our community. Transformative learning, transformative teaching, transformative leadership and a transformative educational experience are what we aspire to and what, I believe, we have achieved.

But the success of the Opus College of Business is only as great as the success of our students and the success of our community. We will continue to encourage students, alumni and the community to rethink what business means. What success means. What leadership means.

Business is about more than the bottom line – it is about making a lasting contribution to the world. Success is about more than earning top dollar – it is about aligning one’s vocation with one’s values to produce something of merit. And leadership is about more than becoming CEO – it is about creating an environment in which others also have the opportunity to succeed. With these tenets in mind, I believe the Opus College of Business can do more than change the way business is taught. Together, we can change the way business is practiced.

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