WASHINGTON — The most popular class this year at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business involves the intersection of business and politics. Graduate students play the roles of business leaders who are being pushed — by customers, employees or shareholders — to address matters of political and social concern like never before.
Professor Aaron Chatterji forces his students to take and defend controversial positions that real CEOs confront while under attack from President Donald Trump, such as Nike’s strategy behind its “Just Do It” ads. The ad campaign features Colin Kaepernick, the former pro quarterback who has become a polarizing figure and Trump foil for leading pregame protests of racial injustice during the singing of the national anthem.
“You have to be careful, but if you walk away from that stuff, how can we be saying that we’re training leaders of consequence across all these schools unless we’re dealing with these issues they actually have to face?” said Chatterji, adding that he first thought of calling the class Business and Politics in the Age of Trump.
It’s just one example of how grad schools, universities and educators are launching new courses or ripping up old syllabi to help students prepare and succeed in a politically charged culture.
Business leaders have historically tried to remain apolitical and avoid volatile social issues, but the current atmosphere is forcing them to change. But Chatterji, who has been studying the nexus of business and government since he was a senior economist at the White House during the Obama administration, said CEOs are under great pressure to defend company values, prompting universities and grad schools to prepare their students for these challenges.
Was it good strategy for Levi Strauss & Co. when President Chip Bergh launched a series of initiatives to prevent gun violence? Bergh wrote in Fortune that the company “simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work.”
Patrick Iber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is developing a new course titled The History of Now to try to add historical context to the day’s politics.
He’s already rejiggered his syllabus on his U.S. foreign policy classes, giving added prominence to conservative sources. The idea is to help students better understand the cycles of past conservative movements and how they relate to the current one.
“When I ask students, ‘Why are you interested in taking this course right now?’ some of them are like ‘I really want to understand what’s going on. I want to know how to talk to my family members who I don’t understand anymore.’ They want historical context for the present.”
Mark Nance, political science professor at North Carolina State University, did not change the curriculum of his classes, but some have taken a different tone.
Students who may have been reluctant to express their conservative views now feel more empowered because of the president, he said. They’re more comfortable openly questioning Nance or fellow classmates during lectures on immigration and other divisive issues.
This semester, at least two students raised concerns that Nance never heard spoken in class during a conversation on social democracy and the integration of immigrants into local communities. Inspired by Trump and other conservative voices, the two students argued that governments have the right to challenge immigration because of the potential negative impacts on public resources and community culture.
“My point is that those feelings have always been there, but they were not being brought out in class,” Nance said. “As an educator, I would much rather have them there and be stated than someone sit there and sort of steam and discount anything anybody is saying, including me.”
Big businesses and certain celebrities have long been risk-averse and careful not to alienate large swaths of a customer base. “Republicans buy sneakers, too” is a quote often attributed to Michael Jordan when he resisted calls to endorse an African-American candidate, Harvey Gantt, in a controversial 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms.
Chatterji said business leaders started becoming more active politically around 2015 when Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke out against legislation allowing companies to refuse services to gay and lesbian people in the name of religious freedom.
That was followed by decisions by Deutsche Bank and PayPal to cancel expansions that would have brought hundreds of jobs to Cary, N.C., and Charlotte, respectively, due to a policy that prohibited transgender people from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The NBA also moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte and the NCAA ruled the state couldn’t host future tournaments. The policy was later changed.
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Chatterji said the election of Trump only heightened the need for his course. Trump has forced CEOs and business leaders to defend values that they have been promoting for decades. Business leaders now have to prove that they are willing to speak out about diversity and inclusion that customers and employees feel has come under threat at the national level.
It may not be an issue that graduates will immediately confront, but Chatterji said they’ll have had some practice when they do.
“Students really love the most practical classes,” Chatterji said. “It’s popular for students who are thinking not about their next job, but about their last job. The one they want to have an impact on.”
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