When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, Eric Spangenberg was visiting a school in Switzerland. As the world witnessed one of the most horrific events in history, Spangenberg says he saw over 400 students and teachers of all races and religions come together to address the fears and challenges that had arisen out of the tragedy. But when he returned to the U.S., he says he saw mostly fear and alienation.
“I was Dean of Washington State University’s College of Business then visiting a partner school. I saw almost 40 countries represented with students from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other cultures all over the world supporting one another, yet in the U.S., we began viewing each other as potential enemies,” Spangenberg recalls. “That experience convinced me that part of the mission of higher education is to expose people to other cultures and points of views and increased my commitment to education and inclusivity at every level.”
Today, Spangenberg is dean at the University of California-Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business, which not only has one of the best undergraduate business programs in the nation, at 46%, it also had the highest first-generation college students enroll last fall among all undergraduate business schools who shared their numbers in Poets&Quants‘ 2018 Best Undergraduate Business Schools.
TAKING A BLUE-COLLAR PNW BACKGROUND TO B-SCHOOL
With almost 30 years of experience in higher education starting from the time he became an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Washington State University, Spangenberg led the business school for nine years before moving to the Merage School in 2014. And if you ask him what he loves most about his job, he’ll tell you that he was a bookish little boy who came from a blue-collared background and his passion lies in showing young students that the American dream exists.
“What gets me excited is that I came from a background where most people don’t get to end up in the positions I do. But I did, and that means I can create greater access for people who don’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education,” Spangenberg says. “The American dream is to get a good job and pursue a fulfilling career where you can make a difference to your family and community, but you need access to tools. My work is to share this dream and vision of mine to emerging leaders and help them to develop and succeed.”
Spangenberg grew up in Longview, Washington, a town of less than 40,000 that sits on the banks of the Columbia River. Spangenberg recalls a childhood in a small town where he cut firewood and worked a paper route to make some money. The adults, he says, worked as commercial fishermen and loggers, and education was not the norm. The message was that not everyone would go to college, much less a respected college, and what was important was that you worked hard, respect others, and take responsibility for your actions.
“Everyone lived by the work ethic that we packed our own water jugs, something I took and have applied to college education, the area I’m passionate about,” he says. “We all knew we had to take responsibility for our actions, something that is missing in a lot of people today.”
P&Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today?
I’ve been a dean for 14 years now and an administrator for almost 18 years. The single biggest challenge higher education is facing is bureaucracy and the slowness with which things move. With the UC system, it’s so large that there are many checks and balances that are built on ensuring other people are doing their job right. This hinders our ability to respond to the market and pivot as quickly as our students need and deserve.
I do believe in checks and balances, but I also believe in greater access to the world. A lot of time, people forget that UC is a land-grant institution signed in 1961, with the intention of providing people with greater access to education. Today, innovation is met with skepticism rather than an attitude where one that sees the potential for positive impact in trying new things. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who has a 100-year-old medical practice, yet we continue to operate like we’re in the 1800s.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in undergraduate business education during your stint at Merage?
The obvious answer is technology and how technology has changed the way we can deliver content. Tech is becoming a sort of minimal expectation of being in business even as big changes now trend towards extracurricular attention, experiential learning, and career services.
Any degree can be taught online, and schools have had to begin thinking about what the value-add of the education experience is. Our big difference is that we teach our students how to work socially, interact professionally, and present themselves technologically.
The other change we are seeing is that while MBA degrees are still highly valued, fewer students are willing to forgo income and stop working for two years to earn one. On the other hand, one-year specialty masters degrees are gaining popularity and we have four specialty masters degrees. These programs recognize that specialty skill sets can be developed in shorter amounts of time.
Accompanying this change, while major consulting companies used to only hire MBA degree holders, more are taking on undergraduates to do the jobs they used to hire MBAs for. A lot of undergraduates at Merage are enormously talented and it’s very difficult to get into some undergrad business institutes.
How should students interested in business prepare themselves for business school?
To begin with, make a plan for what you want things to look like ahead of school.
Ten years ago, people could just show up in college, do the work, and get out and look for a job. Today, it’s imperative and useful that students plan and be intentional about what they want their school experience to look like. Plan for specialized masters programs, internships, international experiences, and more. They need to put together a timeline of what they think the next four or five years are going to look like and take a range of courses within business and other areas to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of the world.
Taking courses outside the business school also helps them develop flexible thinking, and tomorrow’s business leaders need more than just technical skills. Companies are looking for people who have an understanding of the world around them, so show that with international study experiences, a variety of courses, and expose yourself to one or more internships.
When it comes to parents, almost half of the students at Merage in the undergrad program are the first in their family to go to college. This is where our first-generation programs like Gateway Initiative and career services help the kids who are on their own. Their parents may support them but not have the experience or network to help guide their students. The work on Merage is to provide a support structure and safety net that these students don’t have in their personal life.
The main thing, however, goes back to the old saying that 80% of life is just about showing up. Be intentional about getting things done, be part of the community and learn not just where you fit in but where you can add value to the team.
What do you wish more students and their parents knew?
While in college, some people try to do too much and don’t do anything really well. Focusing is important but another danger is over-emphasizing.
I wish more parents and students would remember that a business school that’s great for you doesn’t have to be a top-ranked school. They should look at more than just the brand name to the education experience and how it suits them.
The admissions scandal is evidence that people are getting so worked up about school brands that they’ve lost sight of reality and moral compass. A great business education can be acquired at state schools and community colleges as well. School is oftentimes what you make of it and when you look at the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, many of them don’t come from brand name schools. Focus your efforts on who you’re networking and spending time with.
The other thing that I wish more students knew is that they need to focus on the basics. Do well in writing in math. When you look at the characteristics of successful people, good writing skills are a must. They are good communicators and it translates later on into success.
Too many students today live in the Twitter and Instagram-friendly environment and have difficulty expressing thought beyond 40 characters.