Over the Top

The number of outlandish classes offered by colleges and universities has surged in recent years. Faculty use their control of curricula to create whimsical and provocatively titled courses—courses designed to attract more students to cash-hungry departments, satisfy the narrow academic interests of professors, or inject a bit of “progressivism” and political correctness into pop culture phenomena.

At Rutgers University, students can enroll in Politicizing Beyonce, which a professor in the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies department has described as “a class about…black feminism and the political realities of black women and other minority groups.” If you attend George Mason University, why not sign up for Zombies, a class that “explores how human beings across cultures have historically expressed social anxieties”? The University of South Carolina recently offered a course titled Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame. I’ll leave its description to the reader’s imagination.

There’s no shortage of comical absurdity when it comes to college majors, either.

University of Connecticut students can graduate with a BFA or MFA in Puppetry. Appalachian State University and Mississippi State University offer degrees in Fermentation Sciences and Floral Management, respectively. And Penn State University’s Turfgrass Science major “emphasizes the broad array of principles and practices for effectively managing golf, sports, lawn, and utility turfs.”

It may be time to add North Carolina State University’s new Global Luxury Management (GLM) program to the growing list of over-the-top majors and concentrations.

In the fall of 2012, NC State’s Poole College of Management began offering the GLM track as an option in its year-long Master of Global Innovation Management program. The GLM concentration is jointly offered by NC State and SKEMA, a French business school with seven satellite campuses around the world, including one at NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. The GLM program boasts that its graduates receive two master’s degrees in one year: a master in Global Innovation Management from NC State and a master of science in Global Luxury Management from SKEMA.

The program’s website describes global luxury management as the business of “personal,” “transportation,” and “experiential” luxury. It quotes Mickey Alam Khan, the editor of Luxury Daily: “[Luxury] is a $1.3 trillion industry—the size of Australia’s GDP, the world’s 13th largest economy—so the welfare of such a large influence in the global marketplace is key.” Luxury management, according to GLM leaders at NC State and SKEMA, is a multi-disciplinary field that requires understanding of consumer behavior, brand management, marketing, and entrepreneurship, among other subjects.

UNC system data show that in the fall of 2012, the GLM program had 18 enrollees. Last fall, that number increased to 46. Per an agreement between NC State and SKEMA, enrollment is evenly split between the two institutions (for instance, last fall, 23 students were enrolled by NC State, and 23 were enrolled by SKEMA). Applicants do not have to take graduate admissions tests like the GMAT or GRE. For in-state students, total tuition is slightly more than $21,000, and for out-of-state students, roughly $35,000. Those fees do not include cost-of-living expenses or cover food and extracurricular travel costs associated with the program’s semester abroad in France and group trip to New York.

Trips to Europe, New York, Raleigh, and Charlotte, as well as a mandated internship, are what the GLM initiative calls “experiential activities.” The program’s Facebook page is loaded with pictures of what look like well-heeled sorority girls posing for the camera and standing in front of famous attractions and high-end boutiques. On the GLM’s student-run blog, someone listed the top ten takeaways from a trip to New York that involved visits to luxury showrooms, hotels, and museums. The list includes such groundbreaking gems as “dress appropriately and be punctual,” “passion is key,” and “social media and technology are important.”

The two-semester GLM program requires a fall semester of study at NC State’s campus and a spring semester at SKEMA’s campus in Sofia Antipolis, France. Coursework for the first semester includes: Creativity in Management, Managing the Growth Venture, Consumer Behavior, Global Textile Brand Management, and Global Textile & Apparel Business Dynamics. At SKEMA, students take courses related to advertising, finance, and “sustainable development,” participate in a seminar, and complete a research-oriented dissertation.

According to a Best-Master.com listing, only two colleges in the U.S. offer similar programs—the Savannah College of Art and Design with its MA and MFA in Luxury and Fashion Management, and New York University, with its MBA program’s Luxury Marketing specialization. There is probably a good reason that so few schools offer programs related to luxury management. Most graduate programs in business and management offer baseline coursework and provide knowledge applicable in all sectors and at all times. Industry-specific knowledge such as how to market luxury goods is usually something acquired over time, and with hands-on experience.

In an interview with the Pope Center, Dr. Steven Allen, associate dean for graduate programs and research in the Poole College of Management, responded to my skepticism: “In theory, [GLM graduates] should have general business knowledge that makes them useful anywhere, and enough depth in the practices of luxury industries to put them in a position to get jobs in a growing sector of the economy.

“MBA programs are more for people who have worked a couple of years. So, when you are trying to look for opportunities to help get the economy growing, part of the overall strategy means having shorter, more focused options for students who don’t want to spend two years in MBA programs,” said Allen.

According to Allen, two key factors distinguish the GLM concentration from other, more general graduate programs. One is GLM’s “hyperfocus” on the needs of luxury customers. Students take consumer behavior courses to understand that such customers “have to actually feel they are getting value for that extra expenditure.” Allen also said that innovation is stressed in the program, and that students take courses that home in on creativity and product development.

Allen’s depiction of the program echoed that of the Poole College of Management dean, Ira R. Weiss, who says on the program’s website that “[Employers] are seeking individuals who understand the unique customer relationships in this environment, who can be entrepreneurial, have a global perspective, and can manage the creative and innovation processes.” That sounds ambitious, but the luxury market somehow, some way, has survived and thrived for decades without having higher education pump out new luxury management graduates.

In my view, luxury management should be an elective graduate course in the Poole College–at most. But the creation of the GLM concentration was misguided. It seems to cater to the student seeking to improve his or her resume after realizing that an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textile Management didn’t produce a career in…fashion or textile management. Or, worse, it caters to students who want to go on vacations to Europe and New York and receive a couple of quick and easy graduate degrees in the process. Of course, NC State, which doesn’t offer scholarships for GLM students, certainly does not mind receiving the $21,000 or $35,000 in tuition.

One GLM graduate is listed on SKEMA’s “testimonial” page. After graduating in spring 2013, that individual accepted an internship at a luxury firm with a branch in Raleigh. However, the testimonial doesn’t mention that that graduate is now working as a merchandising assistant at a national (and non-luxurious) department store. It’s hard to say whether that individual’s experience is common for GLM graduates.

Dr. Allen told the Pope Center that all of NC State’s graduates from Spring 2013 have jobs and that 9 of the 23 graduates from this spring have jobs or internships—although he didn’t know how many graduates are working in the luxury industry. But it goes without saying that completion of the program alone, especially in today’s rough economy, does not guarantee a job in the luxury sector. And this reaffirms one of the “top ten takeaways” from the New York trip listed on the program’s student-run blog: “starting out at the bottom is normal.”

I wonder if that’s what prospective students and applicants are told when they express interest in this program.