CMC: Future Wharton of the West?

Editor's Note: Charlie is another new Forum Fellow. With significant journalism experience, including a stint as a section editor for the Port Side, Charlie will be a great asset to the Forum. I came to CMC looking for a true liberal arts education, but I believe that ideal is slowly being replaced.  Economics has always been a large and popular department at CMC, but the growing importance of finance and accounting represents the beginning of CMC moving towards an undergraduate business school model.  I do not object in the least to students who want to become investment bankers or business executives and who want to pursue undergraduate business study at CMC.  Rather, the problem from my perspective is that this type of study will come to dominate CMC in terms of both college resources and student numbers.  The CMC of the future will not be a liberal arts college that happens to offer a particularly strong business education, but a de facto undergraduate business school that happens to have some other, smaller departments.  Many students and faculty members have no objection to CMC becoming the Wharton of the West and I have no reason to believe this niche won't suit CMC well.  Nonetheless, this destiny does represent a fundamental change in the character of CMC.

The Robert Day Scholars program perfectly embodies CMC's transition away from a true liberal arts institution.  The undergraduate portion of the program claims to prepare "highly motivated students for leadership roles in business, finance, government, and not-for-profit organizations."  But the program itself "focuses on four core areas of business education: accounting, finance, economics, and organizational psychology," according to its official description.  I have no doubt that a business education is one excellent way to prepare for a career in government or with non-profits, but there are many other paths of undergraduate study that might be equally valuable for a career in those fields.  Students can only participate in the program (and receive the generous scholarship, co-curricular activities, and networking opportunities that come with it) if they pursue the business education model.  Undergraduate business study will come to dominate CMC not because other departments are weak, but because students pursuing economics, finance and accounting can expect more resources on campus and greater rewards after graduation.

The primary reason we can expect CMC to continue moving towards an undergraduate business school model is monetary.  CMC, like all other institutions of its type, spends more money each year educating students than it takes in from tuition revenue (net of financial aid).  This shortfall is covered by using a portion of the endowment and relying on donations to the college, almost all of which come from alumni.  Want to guess which alumni generally provide the most generous gifts?  Alums with finance and accounting backgrounds donate more money than literature or history majors because the former are more likely to choose lucrative professions after graduation.  Perhaps understandably, wealthy alums from the business world often target their donations to support economics, finance, and accounting.  Nobody harbors any doubt that the vast majority of Robert Day's $200 million gift will support the Robert Day Scholars Program, the Robert Day School of Economics and Finance (if I donate $200 million can I rename the PPE department?), and business education in general.

As the Robert Day School and related business education activities continue growing, more students interested in economics, finance, and accounting will apply to CMC and these students will form an increasingly large percentage of the student body.  CMC's "branding" in the higher education marketplace will increasingly emphasize its excellent business education, especially when placed in contrast with Pomona, Scripps, and Pitzer.  Professors from departments such as literature, history, and philosophy and religious studies all know this and remain nervous about the future educational emphasis of CMC even as the administration tries to assure them that some of the massive Robert Day gift will help their departments.  The question is no longer whether business education will be supreme at CMC, but what this transformation will look like in the years to come.