Roy “Chip” Wiggins never imagined he’d become a business dean back when he was an English major focusing on creative writing at Florida State University in the late ‘70s. At that point in his life, he wanted to become a high school English teacher, a path he followed shortly after graduating, but ultimately found unfulfilling.
“I realized as an angry young man that I didn’t get along with authority figures like principals and other people’s parents very well,” he concedes. “I didn’t last very long.”
Fed up with the high school environment, he went to work in business and human resources for the next decade, with several stints working at bars and restaurants. Many of the bars he worked at went out of business, despite the high liquor markup, which puzzled him, he says. Ultimately, he wanted a better understanding of the finance side of the business, and decided to get a master’s in finance at Georgia State University. Wiggins realized then that he still wanted to spend his life in an academic setting and as a teacher, but this time on the college level. “I couldn’t get rid of the dean and the department chairs at a college, but I could get rid of the parents,” he quips.
Wiggins went on to earn his PhD at Georgia State in finance, and then joined the faculty at Bentley University’s business school in 1996 as an assistant professor at 41, a late duckling of sorts who has quickly risen up the academic career ladder. He was promoted in 2007 to full professor, has served as chair of Bentley’s finance department and was appointed Dean of Business and the McCallum Graduate School of Business in 2011, overseeing both the graduate and undergraduate business schools. Bentley was ranked 20th in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2014 ranking of undergraduate business programs, and 51st in U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 ranking of best undergraduate business programs.
INTEGRATING LIBERAL ARTS INTO THE UNDERGRADUATE BUSINESS PROGRAM
In Wiggins’ four years as dean at the small, private business-oriented university in Waltham, Mass., he’s played an instrumental role in revamping the school’s flagship MBA program to make it shorter in length and more relevant to the school’s increasingly diverse student body. He also was behind the push to add a new MBA program geared toward students with little to no work experience, now called the Emerging Leaders MBA program.
On the undergraduate side, he’s been busy making sure that the business school meets the school’s vision of integrating liberal arts into the curriculum, a task he’s accomplished by forging links between humanities and business professors and adding innovative new majors that put philosophy and business professors in the same classroom.
Wiggins recently spoke with Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast about what he’s accomplished as dean, some new programs the school is rolling out, and how he believes outsiders perceive Bentley. The following is a transcript of their conversation:
What do you believe helps make Bentley unique in a crowded undergraduate business school market?
One of the things that we do is fuse together the business and arts and sciences curriculum. It’s a very popular thing at the moment, but we’ve been at it for quite a while and it’s very much in our DNA, not just at a program or organizational level. The Bentley MBA was developed and is co-taught by 30 faculty from the business and arts and sciences department. It’s unusual to have English, philosophy and global studies professors coming into the MBA classroom. Organizationally, this idea of fusing business and arts and sciences has had a big impact on our structure. We don’t have a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. We have a dean of arts and sciences and a dean of business, and we’re all overseen by the Provost and VP of academic affairs. There are 19 departments at the school that collaborate in a unified faculty model. There are no structural or college barriers that prevent the faculty from business and arts and sciences working together.
How does this fusion of liberal arts and business impact students on a curricular level?
At the undergraduate level, all business majors have the opportunity to take an optional Liberal Studies major in addition to their business major. They can choose from nine thematic programs. So you could do a major in environmental studies and sustainability, business ethics and social responsibility or global studies or international political policy. We provide students with the framework to make connections across their programs of study that often strike people as being disconnected.
On the inverse side, liberal arts majors can do a business studies major, which is made up of six to eight general business core courses. Those are integrated by design, so any student can package together both the arts and science and business perspective in ways that allow them to make that connection. We do not require liberal arts students to do it, which is intentional. What we find is that the liberal arts students who elect to do the business major bring to it an energy and motivation that really increases the probability of success.
What have been some of the innovations at the undergraduate level that you’ve spearheaded as dean?
A large part of my role has been working with the dean of arts and sciences, and helping his professors make connections with the business faculty. For example, we expanded the business major two-and-a-half years ago by adding five new arts and sciences majors to our portfolio, which takes us up to a total of 21 majors. Each of these arts and sciences majors have a very specific business overlay. For example, the mathematical sciences department now offers a major in actuarial science. In the modern languages department, our Spanish faculty offers a Spanish Studies major that teaches students the nuanced differences between Central and South America companies or Iberian ones. They’ll learn what it is like to manage a Spanish firm in a global or multi-cultural environment.
We have a new eight-course professional sales major for business majors that will be a collaboration between the management and marketing departments. That has been in response to student demand and market demand. It goes beyond the one or two courses that are available as electives. We’ve also introduced a new joint major called Creative Industries, where our information design and corporate communication department will be working with our English and Media Studies department.
One new initiative we’re very excited about that we’re rolling out in January is a new online degree completion program at the undergraduate level. It will be geared towards adult learners who are looking to complete a four-year college program, but for whatever reason got sidetracked or sidelined. We’re targeting people who are in their late twenties to their late thirties, a market of folks who are principally working but are finding themselves blocked from progression or from reentering the workforce. We plan to build a virtual cohort that will migrate through the program together in a relatively short period of time to complete the last two years of the program. The curriculum for the program will be developed from our Emerging Leaders MBA program, which is designed for recent college graduates with little to no work experience. We’ve taken that curriculum and created the undergraduate version for adults learners. They will graduate with a degree that will allow them to manage through that obstacle of moving from entry-level management to a supervisory position.
How do you think people perceive Bentley today, and has that changed in the last decade or so?
When I first came here, we had 11 different business majors. People principally thought of us as an accounting school based in New England. The school evolved under Joseph Morone’s presidency, and then later under Gloria Cordes Larson into a business university. What this means is we do for business what an institute of technology would do for engineering and science students. We bring that business lens to a variety of schools and help people focus on what are the skill sets and knowledge you need to be an effective organization. We jumped from being a regional business school that was principally an accounting college to being an international business university. We’ve built a pretty good brand abroad. The piece we skipped was moving out of the region and going more national. It wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t by desire. It was an artifact of the choices we made.
What type of demand are you seeing in terms of applications?
The class coming in September is a larger pool of applicants than the previous year. Some of our colleagues at other schools had declining or flat applications, but we actually had more applications. The class we brought in was pretty similar to the last two to three years, with slightly better academic criteria and slightly higher GPAs. They also did a little better on their SATs and had more life experience, whether it was starting their own business, managing stock portfolios or traveling abroad. As a general statement, it is harder to get into Bentley from an academic perspective than it was four or five years ago. I think each time we are ready to bring in the next class, we worry about whether we’ll be able to maintain the quality, but we’ve really been fairly fortunate.
What advice do you have for prospective student and parents who are looking to find a good undergraduate business program?
The process of finding a college or university is a very daunting one, and technology has made information so plentiful that it is almost overwhelming. What I try to convey to parents and to kids are two important criteria: the fit of a school and affordability. The fit piece is really centered around finding a place that has a variety of things that allow you to find your passion but does so in a way that aids your intellectual growth and development. The affordability part stems from there being a huge variety of really good schools out there, from community colleges all the way to the Ivy League. Parents and students need to be really honest about what they can afford to pay because being able to get out of school without huge levels of debt is really important.
It is probably not well-known that you can come here and study arts and sciences and, from your mom and dad’s perspective, your prospects of employment are still pretty good. We have an exceptional career services team that in a variety of surveys is ranked in at least the top ten or top five in the country. Students who come here get a quality education as well as exceptional career opportunities, which makes Bentley a school with a good return on investment.