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Professional Opinion

The power of an integrated business and liberal arts curriculum in higher ed

Students need multidisciplinary skill sets to succeed in modern life and workplaces
University Business, February 2018
Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University in Rhode Island.
Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University in Rhode Island.

What’s more important in higher education: preparing for a profession or attaining a well-rounded liberal arts education? The answer is that in today’s world both are critical.

The cost of a higher education is high and the workplace demands not only the capacity for critical thinking associated with liberal arts, but new skills like “design thinking” and technological sophistication. We no longer live in a world where the liberal arts and professional education are separate paths to success.

Current conditions demand a new approach that draws on the best of both. Employment trends indicate that employers are less willing to train for entry-level positions, and they expect graduates to be well-prepared for the workplace from the beginning.

A fresh IDEA

The world is not divided by academic discipline. We must innovate our education models to better prepare world-ready students for success.

The entire curriculum must focus on the development of critical thinking, and of verbal and writing skills. Students must also learn the lessons history can provide, and learn to appreciate other cultures from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

In addition, personal and professional success will require the development of essential elements of character as well as the qualities required to be an innovative problem-solver: creativity and curiosity, collaboration, integrative thinking, connectivity, and perseverance and grit.

Bryant University’s immersive, 56-hour IDEA program (Innovation and Design Experience for All) was introduced five years ago as a design-thinking boot camp for all first-year students. Over time, IDEA has been refined by a team of faculty from disciplines in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Business.

It is now a cornerstone of Bryant’s innovative approach to creating an integrated liberal arts and business curriculum.

A transformative trade show

Creating the leaders of the future requires more than a traditional business or liberal arts education can provide. Our entire academic program is designed to prepare students to use both sides of their brains and to be innovative in the profession they choose.

In our IDEA program, for example, we present students with a range of diverse challenges: How might we reinvent libraries for the digital age? How can we help shopping malls compete with Amazon? How can hotel lobbies better enhance guest satisfaction?

These are not just hypothetical problems. We create teams of business and liberal arts students and send them out into the field to do original research on these problems—to observe and interview. Then they come back and synthesize everything they’ve seen and learned.

Students brainstorm ideas with alumni mentors and are coached on how to surface the best ideas. Students then prototype and iterate, building models of what they have conceived.

On the last day there’s a trade show where students pitch their ideas and judges rate each team. Winning teams earn a prize, but the intense, exhausting, fulfilling three days is transformative for everyone.

As artificial intelligence becomes even more important in our lives, it will be essential for students to develop the ability to synthesize perspectives from a variety of disciplines and to develop innovative solutions based on these fresh insights.

We must remove the boundaries associated with traditional academic disciplines to prepare world-ready students with the skills employers expect and to ensure we provide our graduates new paths to success in their lives and chosen professions.   


Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University in Rhode Island.