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A slippery slope

My lovely girlfriend (sorry ladies) attends NYU’s Stern School of Business, an institution that, unlike our own, offers undergraduate business majors.

In her first year, she ended up taking a science class (introductory evolutionary anthropology), the equivalent to Writing 20 and a class where she read classics. That was the end of her liberal arts education. She is now immersed in finance and accounting classes and all that other stuff that teaches you “practical” skills.

By going to Duke, I had to fulfill “liberal arts” requirements known as T-Reqs. I took psychology, cultural anthropology, Writing 20 (sadly did not cover offensive letters to sorority girls) and nothing else before immersing myself into my major.

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right.

Trinity College requires students to take a variety of different “types” of classes, giving them flexibility by not distinguishing specifics of what or when. For example, you can take a math class that gets you writing credit. The class’ writing assignment is a long proof. No essay, no actual paragraphs even. Just a long proof. A quote from the synopsis of said class states, “rigorous development of one-variable calculus including continuous, differentiable, and Riemann integrable functions and the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus.”

When Elizabeth Spiers came out and said, “Personally, I think all theory and no application is a luxury that no one can afford anymore, literally or figuratively, especially since the cost of higher ed has gone up so dramatically. But I’m a practitioner, not a Ph.D,” she must have forgotten what Duke is truly about (or claims to be about) and replaced it with a vocational school.

She seems to have forgotten the beauty of the liberal arts. Duke’s mission “is to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students, attending not only to their intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.”

The two quotes are contradictory but not mutually exclusive. Instead, they provide the basis for what the Duke education is supposed to be.

The Trinity education tiptoes the line of a liberal arts school. With the formation of a finance concentration in the economics department (dear Duke, finance is more statistics and mathematics than economics) and “a new campus initiative to promote entrepreneurship and enable students to market products beyond the University,” Duke is starting to straddle something it is supposedly against: an undergraduate business school.

Combine this with the fact that Curriculum 2000 is far too easy to circumvent. You can take a writing course without real writing (see above), a science course without much science (no offense Psych 11) and a quantitative science course that you should have learned three years before you came to Duke (ahem Math 25, 26 and, well, you too CompSci 4). David Rademeyer, in a Chronicle column published in Oct. 2007, put it best when he said, “Some departments and professors seek course codes for courses that plainly should not receive them. Some departments create absurdly easy courses in order to help students get around the system. Still others fail to apply for codes their courses should obviously receive.”

The implementation of a Finance “concentration” is a Finance major in almost every sense. It is ironic to call it a “concentration”’ since a Stern student needs five classes (this includes a finance course in the core business requirements) for a Finance major. Economics students who want a finance “concentration” (or minor for non-economic majors) need four classes (including the introductory class Econ 172). The two even have the same prerequisites (Statistics, Calculus, Microeconomics, etc.). We are just one class away!

We tiptoe around the Finance major the way we tiptoe around T-Reqs. Quite frankly, we are half-assing both and now find ourselves in a precarious situation.

In a 2009 interview, Kathie Amato, Fuqua’s assistant dean for executive MBA, oversaw the end of undergraduate business at Duke in 1979 because “business is inherently narrowing as a subject matter, and if it is the first thing you learn, you are really ill-prepared for the world you are about to enter.”

Herein lies the slippery slope. We have an MMS “business certificate” and now finance “concentration.” Duke finds itself in purgatory, in between defense of an idea that a business education doesn’t prepare people for the world and the creation of business majors in response to a demand for more classes that relate to jobs on Wall Street.

And maybe there is no solution. Maybe having finance classes in economics is the best idea. That’s why “relevant coursework” has a spot on the resume. But making a Finance concentration is just trying to sidestep Duke’s negative stigma around business majors. Instead of trying to please everyone, Duke needs to decide which path it wants to go on. Either finance has to be minimized and seen as only a portion of an Economics major, or it has to become a full-fledged major under the idea that Duke will take a closer look into reinstituting an undergraduate business school.

But right now, no one is going to benefit from going halfway.

Antonio Segalini is a Trinity sophomore His column runs every Monday.


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