Why Stephen Schwarzman’s big gift to Oxford matters for everyone else

Will the good ideas here spread?
Will the good ideas here spread?
Image: Reuters/Peter MacDiarmid
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Earlier this week, Blackstone co-founder Stephen Schwarzman gave $188 million to Oxford University to create the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, characterized by the university as “a dynamic hub dedicated to … those fields which inform our understanding and appreciation of the human experience.” The school adds that the Schwarzman Centre “will also be home to Oxford’s new Institute for Ethics in AI which will build upon the University’s world-class capabilities in the Humanities to lead the study of the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and other new computing technologies.”

Why did Schwarzman, who made his fortune in rough and tumble markets, give Oxford what is believed to be its largest single gift since the Renaissance (paywall)—all to invest in the genteel humanities?

Perhaps because he recognizes the false dichotomy in the very question. And it turns out that Schwarzman is not alone in placing bets on the humanities, particularly when they are co-located with questions rooted in ethics, technology—and business.

Despite the high-profile support of titans like Schwarzman, the idea that business teaching is best combined with the liberal arts to really prepare the managers and professional service providers of the future is still a radical idea in many educational circles. Many highly sought-after colleges reject the idea of undergrad business education altogether, preferring the pure study of the arts, humanities, and sciences without tainting the student experience with the practical skills and capacities that are the hallmark of professional education.

But business schools—looking beyond their tiered classrooms and manicured lawns—see a growing recognition within corporations that business knowledge and capacities in combination with a liberal arts education are the best way to equip business managers to lead in our times of complexity and uncertainty. It’s business analytics in combination with critical thinking skills and a global view that are in high demand. Forward-thinking liberal arts colleges, meanwhile, are enacting new curricula where business, entrepreneurship, and organizational studies are taught from multiple disciplinary foundations—giving their students with career aspirations in business the socially useful ability to question and critique business decision from multiple disciplinary logics.

Each year at this time, a group of innovative faculty and deans from almost 40 colleges across the United States gather as part of the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program’s Undergraduate Consortium to face down a compelling challenge—to some, an oxymoron: the need to blend business and the liberal arts in the classroom.

They hail from both the largest public and private universities in the country, but also a score of bespoke colleges in small towns and rural areas. They are accountants and PhDs in poetry, management scholars and political scientists, design thinkers and teachers of Shakespeare and the Tao, legal scholars and deans of students. These educators weave their magic with students young enough, with brains still supple enough, to memorize and recite poetry. They instill habits of life-long learning—to value the written word, to ideate before solving the problem at hand, to turn reflective practices into the science of business decision-making, to listen well, to respect difference, and to appreciate the role of the arts as a driver of economic development and creativity.

Blackrock is a private-equity giant with its pick of business school graduates, but it’s been focused on hiring more liberal arts graduates, too. When we combine the two, we equip business—the most powerful and influential institution of our day—with the capacity, and increasingly the motivation, to tackle problems of real consequence, from climate change to inequality to better relationships with host communities.

If we are to harness the power of business to solve complex problems, we need new rules in business, and that means teaching business differently. The new rules of business embrace complexity; they refuse to discount the future or ignore the externalities. They integrate clarity about the purpose of the enterprise and then assure that actual operating decisions are consistent with that purpose.

Our best hope for new rules may be the finance professor who co-teaches with the biologists to explore the use of models in each discipline; the marketing professor who teaches branding alongside the medieval scholar who studies its earliest antecedents.

The changes afoot in business also reflect the talent that is joining companies and taking on management responsibility. The social forces that are recontouring business, as well as business schools, are creating real change and bending the world in the direction of these scholars. Employees, labor, and middle managers are the new accountability mechanism in business. Think #Google Walkout and #MeToo, or the conversations in the employee cafeteria. The scholars who gathered at Boston University this week are watching this space—but also teaching to this space.

Blending the arts and sciences with the analytics, management, and marketing skills of business encourage high-quality, human-centered decisions—decisions which stand the test of time.

In his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein makes the case that generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel. Epstein observes that it’s not the 10,000 hours that help you succeed in what he calls “wicked learning environments;” it’s the interdisciplinary array of courses—the artistic pursuits in combination with the sciences; it’s knowing the “adjacent stuff” that ultimately matters most.

We need fresh thinking and new models of co-creation in education.  And we definitely will need the students of today to bring a breadth of knowledge, critical thinking skills, and emotional intelligence to the  wicked environments, and wicked problems, they will face on their journey in business. We’re hopeful that the impulse to co-create is thriving not only at Oxford, but well beyond.

Author Judith Samuelson is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. Co-author Claire Preisser is the program’s associate director. Find Judith on Twitter at @JudySamuelson or on email at