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Nora Stephens: Mix social justice and business

By Nora Stephens, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published October 11, 2011

What perceptions do you have of students in the Business School? What comes to mind when you think of students studying social justice?

From my place in the social justice sphere, the Business School has attained a negative stigma. I constantly hear comments from my classmates about the school’s elitism. Remarks like “Ross students have a sole, shallow focus on making money” or “they have no interest in helping the unprivileged,” rule the air. At a glance, many of these comments appear warranted. With a massive, $145 million building, the school seems to prioritize glitz and glam, which many social justice students would agree is not a main concern.

Ross has been unresponsive to social justice initiatives on campus as well. Officials from the school have never requested a CommonGround workshop — a program of the Program on Intergroup Relations — to facilitate conversations about social inequalities. Even hard science schools, including the College of Engineering and the School of Information, have sponsored these dialogues. Or consider Ross limiting the speed of Internet in its building to non-business students? Block me out — really? That screams elitism.

I discussed these questions with Business junior Dan Morse. From Morse's experience, the vast majority of BBA students focus little on issues of social justice. When Morse quizzed Business School students on their knowledge of basic social justice terms, like “social construction,” a majority of responses were “What is that?” or “hmm?” Many people didn’t seem to care.

He believes this lack of interest makes sense. The school allows corporations to host impressive recruiting events — several catered in the Big House and even one that brought former Olympic athletes to talk about “following your dreams” — making it easy for Business students to fixate on these opportunities and forget social justice altogether.

On a different note, maybe social justice students are too quick to judge. Upon inspection, many Business School organizations are focused on social awareness — Michigan Business Women encourages discussion on issues women encounter in business, the Social Venture Fund invests $50,000 to $250,000 in businesses with measurable social impact and MReach brings Detroit and other Southeast Michigan high school students to Ross for action-based learning experiences.

Academically, the school offers classes such as Business Information Technology 445 Base of the Pyramid: Business Innovation for Solving Society's Problems, Business Information Technology 444 Introduction to Microfinance which provide financial services to the poor and other classes to explore corporate social responsibility. These clubs, classes and a general business education give students skills to build and sustain an organization — something lacking from the non-profit sector and possibly from social justice students. Maybe there is room for socially conscious students in the Business School after all.

Even with these opportunities, most Business students choose to work in the corporate world, while many social justice-minded freshmen don’t think of applying to the Business School as an undergraduate. These two worlds at the University remain quite separate. So what led to this divide? Why do we keep our worlds separate? Is it personal? Is it institutional? Are students from either side too quick to judge? Are these judgments justified? Most importantly, what steps can we take to begin bridging the gap?

None of these questions are easily answered, but we think it's time for students to think about them.

This column was written with Daniel Morse, a junior in the Ross School of Business.

Nora Stephens can be reached at norals@umich.edu.


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