An Interview with Professor Robert Earhart

As Director of AUP’s Master of Science in International Management, how has your thinking and teaching evolved as you think about preparing managers, advisors, or specialists for international management careers?

Our philosophy with the MSc. in International Management program is that traditional management education and frameworks generally fall far short of what employers expect and what students want. Students don’t just want a career, they want a career that’s meaningful to them. Meanwhile, employers find that familiarity with management frameworks and technologies alone do not make a manager successful. Critical thinking and problem solving, as well as the ability to navigate highly ambiguous and complex situations, are all attributes highly valued in top performing organizations.

In our program, we allow our students to question the models and frameworks that we’re teaching. While they’re being exposed to the traditional business school frameworks, we also look at specific examples and cases and critically examine the problems. For example, we look beyond the issue of financing renewable energy and delve more broadly to understand all the structural factors that are relevant to the problem. This is very much grounded on both a liberal arts approach to management and is also a market-driven consideration. A simple google search of “liberal arts management employment” offers plenty of evidence that job candidates with a management education enriched by the liberal arts are in high demand.

In the evolution of the MSc. in International Management, why has AUP chosen these three tracks: international management, sustainability systems, and NGO and mission-based management?

We wanted to create an international management program that would respond to what students have been telling us about their interests as well as to represent our unique graduate school resources, including those from other graduate programs at AUP. If we look at both faculty and the professional and alumni community that we’ve developed over the last decade in our graduate school, it clear that we have major strengths in these three tracks. Susan Perry, Hall Gardner, and Michelle Kuo, among others, are faculty very well-versed in NGOs and mission-based management. In our Global Communications Master’s program, we have Waddick Doyle, Robert Payne, Charles Talcott, and Tanya Elder, all four of whom have extensive experience with international issues of great relevance to the new Masters of Science degree. As for sustainability, my PhD is in sustainability and ethics and we have faculty very well-versed in sustainable finance and social responsible investment. We include a technical management track as we believe students are also looking for and need these extended set of management skills. The program will leverage a variety of faculty with great expertise in operations and in finance, including our finance professor James Ward. We want to offer a program that is small and intimate but offers many different possibilities for students to work with other departments and builds a graduate school community across disciplines and programs.

As you think about traditional business school programs is there something about the framework of this management program that provides a different experience?

We offer a small, intimate program with a great deal of faculty interaction that provides traditional management skills and competencies, but goes beyond that in order to meet particular needs that many have to move into an area where they feel like they’re doing something meaningful, productive and good for the world around. Our students are truly passionate about solving problems and want to further explore what management actually means and connect this with the meaning of the work that they’re doing. To a certain degree, students are partners in designing the curriculum and the pedagogical approach. This year, we’ve started putting up classes where the students work on projects that are particular to their interest area, as part of the general coursework. In a way, the curriculum is customized to each individual student, with the projects that they work on in each class, and in their final theses as well.

It really comes down to the students. Most of our students aren’t interested in simply becoming a manager, or just in making an impact in the sectors that they go into. I’d say pretty much all of our current students truly envision themselves as change agents, as being able to go into almost any type of company and advocate and push for change, almost taking on an activist role in their position as manager. This is the soul of our program, the idealism and the desire to do something meaningful that students bring with them.

Why is sustainability so important as part of a MSc. in International Management and what is unique about AUP’s approach for the Sustainability Systems track of the program?

Our pedagogical approach is focused on looking critically at systemic problems, which are incredibly complex. Rather than take a single focus, for example, on environmental problems and climate change and looking at how that works in terms of the science, we look at it in terms of engineering, economic factors, public policy, management problem solving, and management frameworks. The transition to sustainable systems is viewed as a broad-based problem that can be explored and better understood through critical thinking and critical management studies. In the case of climate change, we explore the problem by first looking at possible organizational contexts that students are likely to encounter in the future. An approach based on critical thinking opens up the topic to look at the context of the system and its underlying structure. What has shaped it? What is missing and what ideas have been marginalized, and why? Students then understand how to leverage a number of different sectors when looking at a problem. We encourage a more holistic approach as we look at the broad-scale problems, and students can understand how their decisions and their problem-solving skills can come to bear in any part of that process.

How is the application of theory to practice truly experienced in the AUP MSIM program?

What we often talk about in our program is this annoying gap between theory and practice. And really, to a certain degree, there tends to be this requirement that for a master framework or theory to function in the real world, it has to be an ideal type or an ideal situation. The problem is, most situations out in the world are not ideal. There are always complexities, exceptions, caveats: all different factors coming into play. In the program we observe how these frameworks and theories are expected to perform vs. how they perform in different contexts. We look at the theory and how it can be useful, but also at the downsides in unexpected contexts. In our program, students look at management frameworks and practice as an art as well as science, and that’s one of the reasons why we decided to make our management degree a Master of Science. At the highest level of abstraction, the MSc program is about evaluating empirical evidence to better understand the problem. We’re using both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the limits of the empirical claims that can be made when one evaluates data and evidence. We may arrive at some sort of solution or truth-claim regarding the problem, but we are also taking into account its limits as well. It’s all a way of problem-solving and engaging with the world and the problems in the world, while building these underlying skills that are difficult to define and hard to realize, but really underlie the nature of the program.

What would you like to express to interested students?

I want to emphasize that the program is designed for students who are interested in being able to identify and understand how one can find meaning in even the most conventional management careers. We’re looking to attract students who are intellectually curious and want to move into a management career or want to transition their career in a way that addresses their curiosity and helps quench that thirst for meaning and understanding. That’s really at the heart of the program and I think it’s something unique to us. I think this value along with our intimate size and our critical approaches  make the program a fascinating and enriching experience that not many business programs can offer. We’re not just looking at who has the highest GMAT score or who has the highest undergraduate GPA: we want to build a student community that is motivated to make an impact and is research-oriented. As we take critical data from the world around us and come to some sort of truth with it, that research aspect will be crucial in empowering students to explore the problems that interest them. We want to graduate thoughtful, ethical and effective managers, as well as effective human beings.