Professor Ajay Patel discusses the effects the economic downturn has had on higher academia

3.1.2010 Article, Faculty News, General

Will schools adjust curriculum to consider new business world reality?

Originally Issued in March 2010 | By Martin Desmarais
Reposted from The IndUS Business Journal

Common knowledge in the business education field has always suggested that when the economy is bad, enrollment at business schools is up as some professionals flock back to make themselves more competitive for jobs, while others may counter a job loss with full-time academic pursuits. Though that general trend seems to be holding true to some extent currently, there are some new facets that are emerging from the business education environment that vary from previous downturns.

Ajay Patel, a finance professor at Wake Forest University and dean of the university's Babcock Graduate School of Management from 2003 to 2008, said that the applications are up for business school, but the field has gotten much more competitive in terms of attracting the top students.

According to Patel, because this downturn has been so closely tied to stock trouble and the credit crisis, collegiate endowments — which fund most of the top academic institutions — are way down, which has a large impact on the funding schools can offer students.

Budget pressure is the new reality of life in higher academia, Patel said, and this is trickling down to the applicants. The problem is most prospective students are also more concerned about the economy and hesitant to take on large loans for degrees.

If business schools intend to not just accept only those who can afford it, it is going to cost them, Patel said. "I think schools that are making conscious decisions to have diversified student bodies are going to have to spend more on scholarships," he added.

When discussing the impact of the current economic downturn on business education, one thing that Patel said he is excited about is the evolution of the business school in terms of tackling issues such as risk management and business ethics, in light of the high-profile scandals and corporate malfeasance that have accompanied the recent economic woes.

"Right or wrong, the media blamed MBAs for the mess," he said. "This has led schools to try and figure out what is the message we want to give to students.

"In the last year, schools have been asking questions: What should we be training our students to think about? How should they be making decisions going out?" he added.

Asking these questions on the institutional end has led to more classes on topics such as business ethics and managing a financial crisis — and risk management has become a more important issue in the academic world.

Patel reports a change in the incoming business students' attitudes, as well, with social entrepreneurism being an increasingly common interest.

"You are going to see schools begin to think about how they can incorporate that interest from the student body into their curriculum," Patel said. "For students, making money is less of an issue. There are other things they want.

"I think the movement toward wanting to do good is there," he added. "It is something that is keeps growing every year."

At Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wake Forest, Patel sees first-hand increasing student interest in social entrepreneurism with the business school's Project Nicaragua. In its third year, the students travel to Nicaragua and organize business seminars for local entrepreneurs to help them move forward in their business plans. Patel said involvement provides an opportunity to get insight into business in a developing country, but it has also has fueled business for over 100 companies in the local economy.

"It is an interesting time. It is a good time. It is a time when we have to rethink how we prepare [students] to build wealth in organizations, but they want to do some good as well," he said.

According to Patel, the quest to make business more socially conscious may also lead to more collaboration across campuses between business schools and other disciplines, such as environmental studies, that may need to work together to build the business attitudes that will be crucial for the future. He recognizes that such undertakings require policy decisions by colleges and it will not be easy to bring together different disciples in the academic realm, but from a business perspective it may be necessary.

"The first thing we have to do is get an understanding of this is how things should be and where things are headed," he said. "We need to learn how other people think • the better schools will begin doing this."

With more and more business schools also going overseas to open up in places like India and China, there is less need for international students to come to the United States and Patel said business schools are going to have to learn how to deal with the changing landscape. "I see all of this as wonderful opportunities for business schools to figure out what they want to be," Patel said.

Patel joined Wake Forest in 1993. Aside from teaching he has previously served as associate dean for faculty and alumni affairs from 2002-2003. His tenure as dean of Babcock Graduate School of Management ended in 2008 after five years, when the university combined the undergraduate and graduate business schools into one. Prior to Wake Forest, he taught at the University of Missouri. He came to the United States in 1981 and has a bachelor's degree from the St. Joseph's College in India, a master's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore and a doctoral degree from the University of Georgia.