The times they are a changin

November 17, 2008
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When David Steenstra, Ph.D., management department head of Ferris State University’s College of Business and head of its Master of Business Administration program, received his MBA in 1975, things were a little different. The idea of needing to know about global business was as farfetched as the idea of a phone that fit in a pocket and worked anywhere.

“I did a traditional, face-to-face MBA,” said Steenstra. “In that last generation, there’s just been phenomenal change. We weren’t even talking global or international.”

Steenstra said MBA programs are shifting their emphasis.

“We’re a global economy,” he said. “You just start thinking about some of the big employers in the greater Grand Rapids area, and most of them have a global footprint.”

Cornerstone University also has moved strongly toward a global emphasis in its MBA programs. The university interviewed business leaders across the state, asking the question: “What does an MBA student look like?”

Dr. Robert Simpson, dean of professional and graduate studies, noted the same answers predominated.

“We went through eight or 10 focus groups,” said Simpson. “Each one of those focus groups came back with primarily the same answers. They said, ‘Being Cornerstone, we know it’s going to have a Christian worldview. Secondly, do not send a graduate of the program to us unless they have a global emphasis.’ The third thing was they’d better understand how the idea of innovation and creativity and entrepreneurism is alive and needed even if they are working at a large company or starting their own business. The fourth one was, they’d better have a basic understanding of some of those key components: economics, finance, accounting. They don’t have to be experts in those, but they have to understand some basics of those.”

A nine-day overseas trip is built into the MBA program. Simpson said there are four components of the global program: How businesses function internationally; the political situation that drives decisions in the visited region; education as it happens in those countries; and, lastly, the religious climate — all of which are placed in the context of what is happening in that particular culture.

“We decided to branch off in several global trips,” said Simpson. “The global trips became the foundation of at least one course, and really integrated their knowledge from other courses into that trip — once they’ve been on the trip, using that to influence the rest of their program.”

If the university is not exposing students to the world outside of the United States, then Simpson feels educators are not doing their job.

“I think part of the idea is we have to show (students) that while the United States has many great ideas, there are also many other great things happening around the world,” he said. “I think we have to make sure we keep our minds expanded and exposed to that.”

MBAs are taking on more than a global emphasis. At Ferris, for instance, there are MBA programs with concentrations in areas such as design and innovation, pharmacy and others.

“We have nine core courses that we have established as our foundation,” said Anita Fagerman, associate professor with the graduate program. “Then, based on the person’s interest, they can then specialize in one of our concentrations. We started very small with things that were well within our own college of business. With a year or two under our belt, we expanded that to look at all of our existing partnerships.”

Fagerman noted that experience is one of the top qualities companies look for in an MBA student. Simpson agreed, especially when it comes to international business.

“You need to make sure the student is out there,” said Simpson, adding that out of the students who went on the program’s trip to China last year, 70 percent had never traveled outside of the U.S.

“Part of education is literally getting out there. I have students all the time saying, ‘It just changed the way I operate. It changed the way I talk.’”

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