At Westminster, world unlocked by 'integration'

Published March 7, 2010 7:37 am
Business school aims to relate specialized fields, while also drawing nontraditional students.
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Once upon a time, students taking college-level business courses typically focused solely on such fields as marketing, finance or accounting. An accounting major really didn't worry about what went on in marketing -- and vise versa.

That approach is changing. Students still get specialized degrees, but more and more, course work emphasizes learning how other fields relate to the larger corporate picture, both domestically and internationally.

At Westminster College's Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business, it's called integration.

"We took those 'silos' [of specialization] and cut them the other way, integrating multiple disciplines into one class," said Gore Dean John Groesbeck.

"This helps students become prepared for the reality of how the business world works. Think of it this way. Production issues cut across marketing, finance, even engineering and technology; the entire supply chain."

Management professor Vicki Whiting gives a real-world example of how her MBA students cross specialization boundaries.

They do what she terms a "current analysis" of pressing issues. Most recently, they wrote analyses of the problems faced by Toyota with its brake, floor-mat and accelerator-pedal recalls.

"We look at how it affects quality issues and perceptions, how it has affected the entire automotive industry and how it affects the firm's global environment," Whiting said. "This means looking at it from a public-relations point of view, financial impacts and economic effects." Through this process, "we can look at the students' abilities to pull all this [information and analysis] together."


Carving a niche » This multidisciplinary approach is part of how Westminster works to define itself in business education, where this year it enrolled 1,073 undergrads and graduate-level students -- more than one-third of the small liberal arts college's entire student body.

Another way it creates a niche is how it draws nontraditional learners -- undergraduate and graduate alike -- to the 3,000-student campus on Salt Lake City's east side.

In addition to offering traditional business majors for full-time undergraduates, it serves a growing segment of nontraditional undergraduates in a variety of degree-granting programs. One of the newest is the Gore School's "project-based" BBA program, or Bachelor of Business Administration, which began in fall 2008. This also has a graduate component that launches this fall and will lead to a "project-based" MBA, a degree separate from other nontraditional MBA offerings.

BBA students have some college under their belts, perhaps even associate degrees, but for a variety of reasons they stopped their educations to go to work. They come to the campus at the beginning of each semester for a two-day residency. The 35 now enrolled were assigned faculty coaches who help them select projects generally relating to their day-to-day jobs.

Under supervision, but with students working at their own speeds, the program takes a minimum of five semesters and is graded in a nontraditional way. Students get either "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" ratings. They get three tries to get a "meets," said management professor Tana Monaco, one of the program's developers.

She said the process ends with each student defending his or her project, much like a master's student defends a thesis or a doctoral candidate defends as dissertation.

"The content areas for the two levels of students are similar; it's the depth of content that differs," she said. "Graduate students will go deeper with their analysis." And they typically will be in the program with the support of employers who want them to work on projects that the businesses can then use.


Back to school » Like the project-based students, most of the students Westminster draws, particularly for its standard MBA courses, have been out in the work force for three years or more.

And, because of the time of day that Westminster schedules many of its on-campus graduate business classes -- evenings and Saturdays -- most stay employed while pursuing their degrees.

"We have [MBA candidates] with backgrounds in science, in engineering, with Ph.D.'s in biochemistry," said Groesbeck. "They find themselves, as they move up in their regular jobs, needing a whole different skills set. Technologists become managers, and they want to learn how to become effective managers and decision-makers."

That's what happened to Ron Jibson. He got his civil engineering degree at Utah State University in the late 1970s and ended up at Mountain Fuel Supply Co. in Salt Lake City, the natural-gas utility now known as Questar Gas. In the late 1980s, he was directing the company's engineering department.

He realized that if he were going to stay on a management track, he would benefit from an MBA.

"I got to looking around at the different opportunities, and Westminster appealed to me from the standpoint of its reputation for allowing students to be flexible in their scheduling. Most schools are on a regimented schedule. Westminster provided maximum flexibility."

Part of that flexibility allowed him to take three years to finish the advanced degree, typically attending classes two nights a week and on Saturdays.

"The instructors were part of the class; they were there to engage and interact. The classes were large enough to get a good mix" -- today they average about 25 students in size -- "but small enough to get a good feel to them."

Today, he is president and CEO of Questar Gas, with 1,200 employees and operations in three states.

"I spoke to an MBA class [at Westminster] a few weeks ago," he said. "The same atmosphere that meant so much to me was still there. It had the same flavor."

But there is one part of the educational process that was not in the curriculum nearly 20 years ago --- a required two-week trip overseas.


A global consciousness » A fact-finding trip to locales in Europe, Asia or South America has become an MBA requirement in the final semester. The cost is included in Westminster's hefty $47,000 tuition price tag for what usually is a two-year course of study.

"They visit business executives and government officials in places such as China, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Africa, Dublin, London, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Brazil and Peru," said Groesbeck, the school's dean for nearly three years.

Such a requirement reflects how U.S. businesses are expanding into a global economy.

"Students need to see how things work in this international context," he said of the two-week trips.

In April, MBA management professor Whiting will accompany of group of about 30 students to South Africa. At least one other group is going to Brazil.

In South Africa "we'll be looking at mining, sugar production, a BMW plant," among other businesses, Whiting said, adding that such trips allow instructors to give students "a broader global consciousness" as they give them "the tools to think critically and logically."

Programs also are being developed to give graduate students more exposure to international markets and offer them a chance to earn a global certificate, in addition to their MBA.

The Gore School has developed a relationship with Dong Hua University in Shanghai. The college is working with additional schools in Brazil, Australia, France and the Czech Republic. Students go for a semester or a full year and study alongside business students there. They have to have a minimal grasp of the language -- 300 to 500 words -- to make the trip.

The Gore School also is developing an international program for undergraduates that Dean Groesbeck said will not be "for the faint of heart."

It's an exchange program with Nankai University in Tianjin, China, that will lead to a bachelor's degree in economics. Selected students -- 15 begin the program this fall -- will spend one year on the Westminster campus to become fluent in Chinese and proficient in calculus. They then go to China for two years, returning to Westminster for their senior years.

In return, the Chinese university will send 15 students to Westminster for comparable training.

In light of China's growing economic power, "students who do it will have their futures made for them," the dean said.

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By the numbers

The Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business employs 35 full-time faculty and 50 adjunct instructors.

The average age of business school undergraduates is 24, graduate-level students 34.

The Gore School houses Westminster's aviation program. The ground school and academic program were created in 1969. In 2000, the first planes were purchased, and a flight-operations program began.

The Center for Financial Analysis, which offers real-time stock market data and historical records of all companies, U.S. and international, was created in 2002.

Source: Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business

About the students

Business students account for more than a third of Westminster's total enrollment of approximately 3,000. The Bill and Vieve Gore School has 590 undergraduates and 483 graduate-level students. Of the latter, 18 are candidates for Master of Accounting degrees; the rest are MBA candidates.

About this series

This is the fourth in a series of occasional stories about the business schools at Utah's universities and colleges, which are being transformed to meet the demands of a changing world.



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