Carl Schramm

Carl Schramm, an economist and entrepreneur, was recently asked to give a short speech to the graduating class of UC Davis. Below are his remarks to the next generation of entrepreneurs:

It is a great honor to be with you today.  It is particularly humbling to give the graduation address because in many ways this is the graduates’ last lecture.

In the next few minutes I am going to conduct you through a reflection on a question central to the years you have spent here in Davis and to all the years ahead of you.  Let us consider why the study and practice of business matters.  To do so requires that we think about this question in the context of our shared life in the United States.

To begin, think for a moment that the degree you are about to receive, a masters in business administration, is itself an American invention.  Your faculty is handsomely arrayed in the regalia -- the robes, hoods and caps – that signal their status as doctors of philosophy.  Their Ph.D.’s are European, specifically German, in their origins.  In America, business has been so obviously central to our national experience that we made a formal study of how to improve its practice.  A new discipline required a new degree.  Dartmouth awarded the first Masters of Science in Commerce in 1900, which morphed into Harvard’s MBA in 1908.  No foreign university granted an MBA until 1950; and that was, not surprisingly, neighboring Canada!

How odd it is that many politicians, most of the press, and, surprisingly academics in other disciplines, treat the study of commerce as almost not quite legitimate, somehow a lesser intellectual pursuit than other academic fields.  They seem to see medical students and nurses as engaged in science-based “caring” professions.  Engineering students are valued because they will make the next generation of airplanes.  People studying biology and chemistry are respected because they will make our products better or beat back disease.  Agriculture students will see to our sustenance.

Indeed, in many graduation speeches this season, those graduating in other fields will be told in so many words that their apparent career choices are better, more important, and more virtuous, than yours.  It is hard to understand why commencement speakers can even suggest this.  If they only considered that more than ninety percent of all those receiving degrees in our institutions of higher learning will be working in business most of their lives I am sure they would not be so quick to give implicit offense to the majority of their audiences.  

Carl Schramm

Carl J. Schramm is University Professor at Syracuse University. He is the Arthur & Carlyse Ciocca visiting professor at U.C. Davis, a visiting scientist at MIT, a fellow at the Institute of Business Innovation at UC Berkeley and a director at the Berkeley Research Group.