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Why the MBA Curriculum Should Have a Politics Module

The call for politics on the MBA curriculum

Image: doddis77 / Shutterstock.com

2016 has been a year in which the complicated intersection between politics, business and society could not be more discernable. It has been a year chock-full of the unexpected. The foundations of the EU trembled as a marginal majority of people in the UK voted to withdraw their membership. Post-Brexit shockwaves hit the global markets with the pound sterling daring to slump below parity to the Euro. Donald Trump, whose bid to run for the presidency was first perceived by many as a ruse, now finds himself head to head with Hillary Clinton in the latest US polls. China, the second largest economy in the world, has recently stepped in to abet Russia and the Assad regime in Syria’s ongoing war. The Zika virus, the Islamic State (Isis) militant group, the migrant crisis, hacking scandals - events unfolding one after the other to reveal a landscape where political and global uncertainty seem to prevail.  

The intrinsic interdependence between politics, business and society, not just on the national level, but on an increasingly international scale is a relationship that leaders, not only of governments, but also of industry, need to be fully conversant in. Successful leaders of industry are arguably those who are most likely to be able to foresee, plan for and manage uncertainty - and this is where business schools can play a vital role.

In the run-up to the UK’s referendum on the EU, the Financial Times (FT) ran an article defending the case for an MBA curriculum that focuses on politics. The ensuing outcome of the referendum, which has shaken the finance sector in particular, is perhaps evidence of the article’s timeliness. Now, with the US election days away, it is perhaps pertinent to raise the issue again and re-emphasize the need for the subject of politics to be embraced by the MBA curriculum. “Government power and influence is on the increase, and business school students need to know more,” the FT article writes, adding that there is a, “yawning gap between rhetoric on the importance of political systems and policies and the paucity of detailed learning materials and in –class discussion reality.” What then, is the approach that needs to be taken?

Calling for case studies – US presidential candidates' policies as an example

For a clear illustration of how politics impacts the economy, and consequently businesses both big and small, one only has to look at Trump and Clinton’s proposed policies on trade. The Trans –Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, ratified by Obama’s administration earlier this year, is one which both Clinton and Trump oppose. If the US were to pull out of this 12-country agreement, what would the repercussions be? The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by the US, Canada and Mexico is one that Trump proposes renegotiating and perhaps even scrapping. How would the hypothetical shutdown of NAFTA reshape these three economies? Trump has called The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obsolete. If, under Trump’s direction, the US were to pull out of NATO, how would this affect the security of North America and Europe, and what would be the economic knock-on effect? One last example; Trump has proposed that the US treasury secretary label China (the second-largest economy in the world) a, “currency manipulator.” If this label were to be sanctioned, what would be the result?

Political decisions such as these have the potential to bring about momentous change in the business world. Examining them as case studies would provide one way of helping MBA students obtain the tools they need to anticipate and prepare for risk, and to be flexible when the unexpected materializes.

A more rounded business education could encompass…

“As every issue of the Financial Times illustrates, politics is a major force in shaping businesses worldwide. As you progress in your business career towards higher-level management, your ability to assess and handle the political environment will become an increasingly significant skill.”

The excerpt above is drawn from INSEAD’s MBA program website, and is perhaps an illustration of a shift in business schools’ perception of the need for politics to be tackled in the core MBA curriculum. There are many ways in which politics can be addressed - case studies offering just one example. Government leaders can deliver guest lectures and MBA students can participate in mock political debates by defending an assigned stance, for example. Existing government policies can be analyzed and re-formulated with the prospective task of achieving more for business. INSEAD’s core MBA course on ‘International Political Analysis’ gives a more concrete view of the sort of subjects students cover. INSEAD’s topics include (not exclusively); overviews of state structures, regional and international regimes, international political economy and varieties of capitalism.

In its call for a focus on politics within the MBA curriculum, the FT article highlights that, "the days of teaching finance, marketing and accounting in specialized fortresses as the sole path to business have long passed." Yet it is also possible to accede that it is the business schools, as part of larger academic bodies (more often than not) that hold the keys to the the resources required to put a politics program into implementation, particularly into MBA courses.

The business schools embracing politics as part of their MBA curriculum

"Given the close intertwining between government oversight and the economy, an understanding of political systems and the role of government regulations is essential to all students preparing for careers in business," William Rhey, dean of the Barney Barnett School of Business and Free Enterprise told US News back in 2012.

Certainly, there does seem to be a greater number of business schools offering politics classes in the form of electives, or as part of their core MBA curriculum. The TRIUM Global Executive MBA, a program run in partnership between the London School of Economics, HEC Paris and NYU Stern is an example of how separate faculties draw on each other’s specialized expertise to build a course that, “integrates international economic, political, and social policy into the traditional business curriculum.”

Meanwhile, the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University is an example of an institution that provides a dual degree program for students interested in, “blending business and public-sector enterprise,” in this case through a MBA/MA in Government taken over three years. Many business schools also offer specialized MBAs in public service and public policy. The main concern, however, is that politics should not only be an MBA specialism or elective, but rather a key part of the core curriculum. After one poll put Donald Trump ahead in the US election, a headline in the UK’s Independent this week proclaimed global markets to be in the, “early stages of panic.” With alarms such as this being sounded, the question that begs to be asked is: Are today’s business leaders fully equipped to navigate their way through what appears to be a hostile economic and political climate? The fear is that the answer might well be ‘nay’. 

Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

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