University of South Carolina's Peter Brews, Darla Moore School Raising Bar for Business Education
Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
Dr. Peter Brews is dean of the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. The South Africa native’s academic career has included posts at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
This year the 5,500 Moore School undergraduate students are beginning the Academic Excellence Initiative. The school has raised performance standards while moving from a two-year curriculum, where students completed business courses in their junior and senior years, to a four-year curriculum, where business courses start in the freshman year. Here, Brews talks about the initiative, as well as the broader landscape of higher education. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
South Carolina CEO: When you arrived here in 2013, you inherited a top business school with a brand-new building. Did you ever get a sense that some people’s expectations were, “just don’t screw it up?”
Peter Brews: No, I didn’t get that expectation. The expectation I encountered was that we had a new building and that we must make sure that everything we do is in line with this incredible new facility. In general, I think that was the case, even in the old building. Do remember, it’s not only the hardware that’s important. It’s also the software and the human ware. The new building has been an incredible benefit, because it has changed the way people see the school, both physically and psychologically. It’s also changed the way people inside see the school.
SCCEO: You’ve said that preparing your students for careers in business is a “sacred task.” How so?
Brews: Anyone in education, anybody who prepares human beings for the lives that they face, is entering into a very, very sacred, and a very important, task. I don’t think it matters whether you’re K1-12, or a community college, or a university. You’re equipping human beings with skills and capabilities to lead a productive and fulfilling life. I don’t think there are many tasks that are more sacred from a human perspective than that.
SCCEO: How is post-secondary education as a whole dealing with the huge shift going on in skill requirements for jobs?
Brews: I’m not that close to the community colleges, so I’m careful not to speak authoritatively about community colleges, though I do know one of the reasons we’ve been so successful in recruiting and bringing businesses into this state is because there’s a fairly close relationship between the community colleges and the businesses they serve. I think we at the Moore School are preparing students for the jobs that are coming but we’ve all got to be on our toes and be very sharp, because the rate of change is incredibly fast.
SCCEO: To that end, you’ve said you weren’t sure the Moore School was pushing students hard enough.
Brews: I’m not sure we’re held them to the level of accountability that is required in general. Now, you’ve got to be careful with generalizations. But my sense when I arrived here was our top students were getting a world-class education because they applied themselves and really focused and did good work. But some of our students could come here and slide by and graduate after four years and not be that challenged.
SCCEO: How could you tell?
Brews: I had a number of students who came to me when I arrived and, regretfully, some of them said to me, “I worked harder in high school.” I also have students that say to me they’re not being as challenged as they thought they would be. I don’t think this is a problem only for the Moore School of Business. It may be a problem on campuses across this country.
If you go into the graduate programs at many universities, you will discover that more than half of the students are international students. They typically arrive with better quantitative and other skills to do the graduate work. I think this speaks to that fact that we probably haven’t paid the attention to education that we should have.
SCCEO: I imagine some students would have also pushed back against increasing the rigor.
Brews: There are two issues that we’re talking about. One is aptitude and the other is attitude. And if you were to ask me what I think is the greatest inhibitor of good educational outcomes at our college, I think it’s more about attitude and the attention students need to pay to their education in the face of other choices. I’ve said to our students, “If you don’t have the aptitude, it’s our job to help you build it. It may be a bit harder for you, you may have to put in more work, you may have to look for more outside help, but fundamentally, if you come here with the right attitude, over time we will build that aptitude.”
There are, however, some students who haven’t arrived with the depth of preparation that others have, that struggle more, and this is daunting. But in the rollout this year of our undergraduate, four-year program, we’ve spent an enormous amount of time making sure that students who are struggling understand they must ask questions and seek help as soon as they are in that position. The university’s Student Success Center has been far more used than in previous years because of the fact we got their attention early. What I did say to the students was, “don’t slide by for six weeks and all of a sudden put your head up before midterms and say, ‘I don’t understand.’ ” By that time, it will be too late.
SCCEO: How has the rollout gone so far?
Brews: It is proceeding as we had expected. This is a process that will take us a number of years to implement. We just have to make sure that we communicate continuously. I sent letters to our parents, telling them about what we’re doing. The undergraduate freshmen are working harder than their counterparts did before them. They’re in accounting, in statistics, in economics, and yes, it’s challenging. But they seem to be coping as far as we can tell.
SCCEO: Margaret Spellings, who heads the University of North Carolina system, says students are taking too long to get through college. What do you think?
Brews: I agree with that. I think there’s a corollary to that. Our student debt levels are also worrisome. To me, the optimum level of debt would be zero. Unfortunately, given the way higher ed has been funded and given the way things are working, a number of our students are borrowing. Ultimately, if you’re out of the workplace for six years as opposed to four years, you’ve got a much higher carrying cost.
I think where we are fortunate is that by speaking to these students earlier, you should get more engaged students who come out better prepared, which means they also should graduate quicker. If there are any difficulties where they think they’re not up to it, or it doesn’t suit them, or it doesn’t fall into line with their life goals, they don’t find it out in their junior year. They find it out pretty early.
But this is quite surprising to me. We have many students who come to our school with many AP (credits). They could graduate in three years. To me, that’s what I would try and do. Yet the majority of our students don’t seem to really want to do that.
SCCEO: They’d rather spread it out and carry a lighter course load each semester.
Brews: So you’ve also got to balance it with that. When you’re an 18-year-old, you’re also finding yourself. Who am I in the world? What am I doing socially? It’s a bigger picture than just the educational aspects of it. And it’s a maturation time, too. Maybe it’s a little too much of an expectation that we could get everyone out in three. But we should make it as short as possible.
SCCEO: Within that context, and within the context of trying to prepare students for jobs, how do you balance that vocational aspect with what some people consider the traditional duty of broadening minds and learning how to think?
Brews: The general education requirement has not changed. What has changed is the timing of the business courses and the fact that you start your business courses earlier and you sprinkle out the gen ed courses more widely. There’s a whole lot of advantages to that. The one disadvantage is that you have to start selecting your major pretty early in your sophomore year.
SCCEO: I’d like to conclude with a little bit lighter question. Having been someone who worked at both Chapel Hill and Duke, what’s your perspective on the rivalry between USC and Clemson, both academically and athletically?
Brews: It’s not that different viewing the University of North Carolina versus N.C. State. You’ve got a flagship, comprehensive, liberal arts – for lack of a better phrase – university in UNC Chapel Hill, similar to what we have here. And you’ve got N.C. State as the engineering school. I think the competition here is a little more focused, a little more “in your face.” But that’s not a bad thing. I think that’s because South Carolina is smaller and I think it tends to be a little closer as a consequence of that.
N.C. State and North Carolina do not compete as much on the football field as Clemson and USC. But at the same time, in North Carolina, basketball is the more prominent game. It’s a wonderful part of our educational infrastructure, but I do always remind our students, the important reason they’re here isn’t because of sports rivalry. It’s to get a world-class education and be able to do something with it when they leave.
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