Under the Radar

At first glance, Fayetteville State University may seem like a run-of-the-mill institution. Out of the sixteen UNC system schools, FSU’s enrollment ranks twelfth, and among the system’s five historically black schools, it ranks third. The average SAT score for entering freshmen (844) is the lowest in the system. And the town of Fayetteville is known more for the nearby Army base, Fort Bragg, than it is for its collegiate atmosphere. But those facts and descriptions don’t provide a complete picture of the school’s dynamics. 

FSU’s second most popular major is business administration, and for good reason: the school of business and economics there has positioned itself to become a highly regarded business school in North Carolina and the country. School leaders see it becoming a hub of free market scholarship and Austrian economics—a school of economics that emphasizes the subjectivity of value, the importance of the price system and the role of the entrepreneur—in a region where such scholarship tends to be scattered across various colleges and universities. The business school wants to do for North Carolina what Hillsdale College and George Mason University have done for Michigan and Virginia, respectively.

The Social Science Research Network currently ranks Fayetteville’s school of business and economics as 70 out of 500 business schools. This ranking is based on how many times faculty members’ publications are downloaded and reviewed by other scholars. In North Carolina, this puts the school behind only Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. It is the only historically black college or university (HBCU) business school in the SSRN’s top 200. 

It’s not clear how informative that ranking is, however. A professor at George Mason University told the Pope Center that SSRN rankings can be “gamed” when faculty members make it a point to use SSRN as the publisher rather than others. “If [papers I publish with other outlets] were instead at SSRN, and had the same number of downloads, my ranking would be very, very high,” he said.

Nevertheless, FSU’s business school has other merits, including its flexible degree options. These include full- and part-time coursework, online and “flipped” classes, and video streams of lectures to accommodate students juggling school with family and professional life. A recent U.S. News listing of online MBA programs ranks FSU’s program 82 out of 236. 

Roughly 20 percent of all FSU undergraduates pursue degrees offered by the business school. These include accounting, banking/finance, or business administration with a concentration in either entrepreneurship, marketing, healthcare management, or management information systems. Students frequently participate in conferences and compete in national events related to the creation of viable business ideas, and have celebrated a number of top finishes. 

Last fall, the school added eight faculty members. Two of the new additions, Steven Phelan and David Pistrui, are professors of entrepreneurship, a field that is growing in popularity nationally. Phelan and Pistrui say their courses provide undergraduates with the tools necessary to construct business models, discover profit potential, raise start-up funds and even negotiate contracts. Students gain these skills by engaging in a number of hands-on, interactive in-class and out-of-class activities that simulate real business scenarios. 

The relatively new “entrepreneurship trend” in higher education around the country is undoubtedly one reason that Fayetteville State has been working to establish a new doctoral program in the subject. It’s also a move that would distinguish the school in North Carolina. While other schools have entrepreneurship centers and undergraduate course offerings, the only university in the state with a related doctoral program is UNC-Chapel Hill, which offers a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in strategy and entrepreneurship. 

Edward Stringham, who holds the L.V. Hackley Endowed Chair for the Study of Capitalism and Free Enterprise at the business school, has spearheaded the entrepreneurship initiative. “The program has the potential to be a game changer for the university and for the study of entrepreneurship and the importance of free enterprise in general,” he said in a recent interview with the Pope Center. 

The doctoral program has been in the planning stages for more than a year. In October 2012, the Pope Center’s Jane S. Shaw participated in a seminar at FSU designed to brainstorm the appropriate focus of an entrepreneurship doctoral program. The participants, who included high-profile free-market academics and business leaders, concluded that such a program should combine both practical aspects of entrepreneurship (for instance, the nuts and bolts of starting a business) and scholarly pursuits. Given the composition of the group, there was an emphasis on research that would explore the morality of markets and define the political and economic environment that encourages entrepreneurship.

During a recent visit to FSU’s business school, I was able to learn more about the vision for the entrepreneurship Ph.D. and discuss the proposal with Assad Tavakoli, dean of the school, as well as Stringham, Phelan and Pistrui. Tavakoli said that, if approved, FSU’s program would have numerous “spillover benefits” for the region and would “build the human capital of traditionally disadvantaged groups.” He also said that a new program would help Fayetteville State heed the call of the UNC system’s board of governors, which encourages “innovation” and “cutting-edge research.” 

Although I’m sympathetic to many aspects of FSU’s proposed entrepreneurship program, I share others’ skepticism about the possibility of imparting “real world” entrepreneurial savvy during the course of a 16-week semester. That is why the original idea of the program—to embrace the intellectual side of entrepreneurship by focusing on the importance of property rights, sound political institutions, and economic freedom—is more appealing. 

To obtain Board of Governors approval, the program must deal with the question of funding. Over the past five years, FSU’s business school has received more than $4 million from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Department of Agriculture and the Economic Development Administration to fund various initiatives. One of those initiatives is the Veterans Business Outreach Center, which provides veterans with free business counseling sessions and seminars. 

Stringham envisions the entrepreneurship program moving away from public funding, and more to private donors. “One of the biggest dollar expenses of doctoral programs is stipend funding for doctoral students. The great news is that we know donors who are interested in helping fund our students,” he said.

Tavakoli concurred: “As dean, I have made it a priority to secure the funding necessary to attract top-flight faculty—faculty with the skills and the philosophy necessary to make this entrepreneurial message real for students in courses and through extra-curricular activities.” Indeed, a private donor contributed $1 million to the L.V. Hackley Endowment for the Study of Capitalism and Free Enterprise, which helped to attract Stringham, Phelan and Pistrui. When the program takes off, says Tavakoli, the entrepreneurship program will thrive because more donors will come to view the business school as a quality institution with the right values. 

These reassurances about private funding will be beneficial for FSU as the approval process, which has been trudging along for months, moves forward. One reason it has taken time is that the university had to revise its mission statement—in part to justify a second doctoral program (it has one currently in educational leadership). 

So far, the reaction to the doctoral program by the UNC system has been mixed. The consultants who recently reviewed the mission statement (and all UNC mission statements) endorsed the program but suggested that additional resources might be necessary. UNC president Tom Ross echoed those concerns in a memo to the Board of Governors. 

This February, the UNC system’s Graduate Council, which has a representative from each UNC school and makes recommendations regarding degree programs above the baccalaureate level, will examine FSU’s plans. The plans will then be sent to the UNC Board of Governors for final review. 

If FSU can obtain more private funding to develop a high-quality doctoral program that’s built for the long haul, rather than merely to accommodate a new trend, North Carolina and the region could be better off. At a time when many students graduate from college lacking basic knowledge of market economies, having a business school that breaks the mold and fosters appreciation for free enterprise through rich scholarship, student development, and community outreach would be a cause for excitement.