Viewpoint (Jay Sr.): How Teaching Has Changed
I graduated from Lehigh University in 1966. After I retired in 2009, I returned to campus as a Professor of Practice in the Accounting Department. I taught there for six years. Clearly, the biggest difference between then and now was that Lehigh was male-only in the 1960s but is now co-ed. At the time of that transition, many “old-timers” referred to the male only environment as “the good old days." Were they wrong! A co-ed campus is a real life environment. Much better than young men fixated on seeing a female at a weekend social function.
But there are other differences as well. Let me just focus on a few: diversity, technology, specialization and the softer skills.
Diversity. The benefits of a co-ed campus are much more than social. Would there have been an emphasis on the arts on a male-only campus? Would a first class performance venue have ever been built? Would such a wide range of performance groups come together?
Almost as striking is the ethnic and racial diversity at Lehigh today. In the 1960s, non-white and non-US citizen students stood out. Often, they were wealthy students whose parents were the king of some territory or serving at the UN. Today’s campus is highly diverse in every respect. The students come from every walk of life and their diligence is impressive.
Technology. In the 1960s, computerization was manually prepared punch cards. Just like the movie Hidden Figures. Rudimentary calculators, slides rules and protractors were the order of the day. Business and engineering education focused on the shop floor in an industrial manufacturing environment. Many students hoped to simply walk down the hill from Lehigh to work for Bethlehem Steel. After that, manufacturing in America was transformed. As Billy Joel said in his song Allentown, “And they’re closing all the factories down out in Bethlehem…”. The Bethlehem Steel site is now a combination hotel, casino and performance venue.
Today, every student has at least one computer as well as a smartphone. Assignments are communicated online and class projects are highly sophisticated combinations of web-based information and flashy powerpoint presentations. Almost all curricula have a heavy emphasis on systems and the latest technology, be it business or engineering.
In the Introductory Accounting course, I asked the question, “How many people know how to reconcile their checking accounts?” I was greeted with quizzical looks and finally the question, “What is a checking account?” Today, students use electronic banking debit and credit cards. Almost no one gets a bank statement. Instead, they rely on the balance printed on their last electronic transaction.
Specialization. When I was hired by Price Waterhouse (now “PwC”) in 1967, the firm hired almost exclusively accounting majors to become part of the auditing staff. Generally, auditors spent their entire careers doing just that. Auditing. From time to time, someone would get transferred to the emerging practices of systems/consulting or perhaps transactions and due diligence. But that was rare.
Today, the renaissance accountant/auditor is almost a thing of the past. Instead, specialization is the key. Although, for example, accounting majors are still hired to become auditors, most of the hiring is for specialized skills like forensic auditing, systems auditors, transaction support, finance and systems engineers. The focus is on technology and change, moving away from the manufacturing shop floor to knowledge based learning.
A good illustration of this movement is the positioning of cost accounting in the curriculum. In the 1960s, an introductory cost accounting course was mandatory for all business students. Its focus was entirely on activity on the shop floor and on labor, a huge cost component. The processes for figuring it out were old and manual. It was a question of what it cost to make the product, not the decisions about how to make it. Today, these courses are called “managerial accounting.” They are all about how to make cost-effective decisions in today’s highly technological workplace.
Softer skills. In the 1960s, the highest achieving students got the best jobs and got them before anyone else. There was no interview preparation or practice. You simply showed up as your true self, for better or worse. I guess employers assumed they could mold you into whatever they desired.
Today, the job market is highly competitive and strong grades simply provide an opportunity to get into an intensive interviewing process. Said differently, the grades are a qualifier but you will get your job based on your soft skills as demonstrated in the interview process.
As a consequence, Lehigh starts acquainting students with the interview process in the sophomore year--long before anyone in my generation thought seriously about high-powered summer internships or a full time job. The large firms share in this acclimation process, putting on well-attended panels about what is expected and staging mock interviews to hone those skills. Demonstrating attributes such as leadership, teamwork and innovation without being boastful is the magic formula for getting the desired job.
There have been many changes over these years, most of them good. And then there are some things that happily remain constant. Like the beautiful campus with pride in its history yet pushing forward to meet ever emerging changes.
Jay is a retired PwC audit partner. He was the Assurance Risk Management Leader and a member of the PwC US firm and Global Boards of Partners.