R. Stafford Johnson is Director of the Stephen S. Smith Center and Professor of Finance at the Williams College of Business at Xavier University. The Smith Center is one of ACTA’s Oases of Excellence, a network of academic programs that share a commitment to liberal education and free expression. Professor Johnson sat down with ACTA’s Erik Gross to discuss the Smith Center’s mission and programming, as well as practical advice for running an academic center.
What is the Stephen S. Smith Center at Xavier University, and what is your guiding mission?
The Smith Center oversees several programs at Xavier, but the focal point is an undergraduate cohort honors program. Students begin an intensive study of the humanities in their freshman year, and the goal is to integrate the study of liberal arts with a business core curriculum. Students take the university core curriculum, and we build from that, primarily with philosophy and political science. They take an enhanced version of the college core which emphasizes law, economics, and international relationships. In addition to the core, they also pick up a major in the college of business. So when our students graduate, they have a major in finance or economics or accounting, and also a strong background in the liberal arts.
The program was inspired by the fact that Xavier has a strong program in business and in the liberal arts. We wanted to integrate the professional studies more closely with the study of business. So we started with those core requirements, and we said, “Let’s design a program in political economy which identifies the relation between economics and philosophy.” We made sure to cover the history of philosophy, ancient and modern, the founding of the United States, and the relation of law and business. Then we examined the university requirements and asked, “How can we enhance the core? How can we develop courses that students are required to take and bring to them a clearer focus with their professional education?” We also decided to employ original texts (rather than textbooks) wherever possible. So our program began to resemble a Great Books program.
“The goal is to integrate the study of liberal arts with a business core curriculum.”
Why do you think it’s important to combine a business education with a strong foundation in the liberal arts?
Sometimes in economics or finance, we see things abstractly solely in terms of numbers. But it is critical to get behind the numbers. If you consider something like supply chain management, you look at management models or finance models. At the same time, you consider locational advantages. But if you can combine those models with an understanding of history and political philosophy, you gain tremendous depth in understanding the economic and cultural underpinnings of a particular place. The economist needs the humanist to grasp the depths of the human experience, but the humanist needs the economist to keep the humanist honest. This combination helps to build a student who understands and appreciates both areas.
There’s also a practical answer to that question. Some of my best students each semester were very fine students from the Williams College of Business, but they were not in a curriculum that they saw as coherent or related to their professional studies. There was a natural demand from those students—“Tell us what other courses to take that relate to this course that allow me to explore the liberal arts and then see the connection of the liberal arts to business.”
We took these students, our very best students in these professional schools, who really do want to be exposed to the liberal arts, and then built that curriculum for them. They are introduced to the liberal arts, and they see, through the study of political economy, the relation of the liberal arts to economics and business. Universities are emphasizing professional studies, but they’re not equally emphasizing the liberal arts for those professional studies. We’re fulfilling a need that schools have not really explored before.
“Students see, through the study of political economy, the relation of the liberal arts to economics and business.”
Do you feel like your students leave with a really good combination of hard skills like data analytics and financial literacy, as well as soft skills like communication, interpersonal skills, and human understanding?
That’s the goal. We’ve noticed that the students, when they graduate, oftentimes in their job interviews, at Procter & Gamble and elsewhere, are asked questions to see how they think on their feet. Unusual, unexpected questions. The students do a lot better and are able to demonstrate more thoughtfulness when they have this liberal arts background. So it actually contributes to their professional success directly in that way.
I might also add that the center is both an academic program and a research, scholarship, and outreach program as well. The centerpiece of the center is the academic program, but we’ve also launched the Smith Fellowship, which are research fellowships for faculty members who, in turn, develop courses and teach in the program.
I think it makes us an intellectual leader on the campus. We have one foot in the liberal arts and one foot in business and economics and finance, so we are able to build bridges that are hard to come by in the university today, where things are so specialized and departments are not interacting.
“Students are able to demonstrate more thoughtfulness when they have this liberal arts background. So it actually contributes to their professional success directly in that way.”
Can you give me an example of a student who you felt got a lot out of the program?
First of all, the center is a cohort environment. They’re with other very smart students who are challenging them, and the cohort allows the following advantage: Every additional class they take as a cohort just continues a previous discussion for them. For instance, the freshman cohort begins by reading Plato’s Apology and Plato’s Republic, and those themes open discussion about the meaning of justice, the relation of justice and politics, and the relation of individual ethics to communal ethics. That discussion then continues into their economics classes, for example, and into their other classes as well.
The practical effect is that a student who’s never reflected on these things before, and has no experience in talking about them or in thinking critically about them, all of a sudden is starting to do that in every class they take. They become far more articulate, and they also become a lot better at analyzing things and asking tough questions. The success stories are when you start out with students who are very smart, but they lack confidence, they lack public speaking skills, they lack skills in analyzing difficult questions and thinking abstractly, and then they go on to distinguish themselves. You can tell the difference between our students and other students based on that cohort experience and the Great Books experience.
For other academics thinking about starting a program like this, do you have any practical advice?
Build bridges. Everybody is a potential ally and friend, even if they think they’re an enemy. We are constantly reaching out to departments, even if those departments in the past have said things that have been unfriendly toward us. We invite them to events, we invite their students to events. But also, the fact is, if we can provide some support for them financially in their own work, that is always very welcome, and a good way to build bridges practically.
Being a part of ACTA’s Oases of Excellence network was huge for helping us build bridges. It provided a sense of third party validation and legitimation that helped us raise our profile within the university.
Another practical tip we could share is that when we built the program, we didn’t begin by looking outside the institution. We looked at the institution and said, “What resources do we have at Xavier to build the program?” We found that we already had building blocks in the core. Those are already required courses. If we could rework those courses slightly, we could make them an important part of the program. So that was the first thing we did.
The second thing we did was ask, “What faculty are already here at Xavier who know something about the Great Books or are sympathetic to that approach?” We discovered faculty in all departments, including finance and economics, who really liked the Great Books approach. They are excited by it, and they want to participate in it. We didn’t have to create new courses. We worked from what we already had.