Matthew T. Phillips

Mastering Business (Winston-Salem Evening MBA Class of 2014)

Winston-Salem Evening MBA Graduation Celebration, Class of 2014
Forsyth Country Club, Winston-Salem, NC 

Graduation is full of meaning. A phase of life is ending, a new phase is beginning. For working professional students, you finally have time to do that really important but not terribly urgent project. I don’t mean at work. I suspect work got done. I mean at home. For some of you, you’ll be reintroduced to the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner. Perhaps you’ll have to start mowing the grass again. Maybe you’ve had a new child during the past two years and so you’re about to lose that incredibly valuable response: “I’d love to change her diapers right now, honey, but I’m reading about marketing strategy so that I can contribute to our future.”

And the re-entry can be awkward on both sides. As many of you have learned tonight, my favorite thing to do at our graduation ceremonies is to ask students’ partners, “so are you excited to have your student back at home more?” Responses are bimodal, with a significant amount of hesitance reflected in some: “I guess. I don’t really remember what we did when he was home all the time.” If you’re really worried about that, I’ve been asked to remind you that Dan Fogel now directs the university’s MA in Sustainability, and the law school has a really compelling Master of Studies in Law program.

While we ponder the meaning of endings, beginnings, and transition, it might be a good time to ponder some other meanings at graduation.

You all earned a bachelor’s degree at some point in the past. I don’t know what it means to be a bachelor. Part of that is because I got married at age 22, less than two years out of college. But I really mean I’ve never quite understood why we use the term for undergraduate degrees. There’s actually etymological disagreement about the question: some think the latin comes from the term for the bay leaves that one wore to denote achievement in roman times; others think it comes from the word for the gold sceptre (now called a “mace”) that symbolizes the authority of the university. Still others say that it comes from the term for a vassal farmer by way of yeomen in early professional guilds. That’s my favorite explanation. You were a vassal farmer; now you’re a business leader.

In any case, however odd the term “bachelor” is for an undergraduate degree, the name of the degree you are to be awarded tonight is stranger. The academic title of “master,” as in “Master of Business Administration,” also comes from medieval professional guilds, denoting someone who had finished the course of training and practical experience to work on their own. Our conventional usage of “master” makes the old academic title feel awkward, though.

Have you mastered the disciplines of business administration? I doubt most of the faculty would claim that, and I suspect it would be an uneasy claim for you too.

Perhaps for some people, getting an education is about trying to stuff new knowledge inside empty spots in our minds. That was never our goal. It would make for really terrible brochure copy, and it is certainly not an endeavor that would get your teachers out of bed in the morning.

We gave you some new information, but it wasn’t about filling gaps – rather it was about exercising muscles that had yet to fully form. Hopefully that process gave you some new abilities even as it demonstrated to you that there is always new work—new exercise—to do.

You haven’t mastered the disciplines of business administration – no person has. You have, we certify today, mastered the art of learning about business administration. Graduation isn’t an occasion to mark full formation, but rather an occasion to mark that you’ve found the work to do within: to occupy yourself with your own goals for learning and development.

Because this is Wake Forest, there are two key implications:

First, a discipline for study is never the end, but rather the means to the most important kinds of development: the formation of each of us as a “whole person.” I bet it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks before many of you decided that working in teams was at least as hard as figuring out financial accounting. And being able to express an idea is just as important as being able to pass a test. Business is the way we have explored what it means to be a citizen, a thinker, a teammate, a person.

Second, you now share the institution’s commitment to conduct this process of development and discovery without being satisfied by personal benefit. No graduation ceremony would be complete without the obligatory reference to the university’s motto, pro humanitate. I have a particular passion about this. It doesn’t mean “do nice things for other people,” or even just “for humanity.” In its full context, the motto was originally meant to convey the idea that our mission is to use what is distinctive about ourselves—our particular identities—in order to become more fully human and to flourish… and to help others along that journey, because I don’t think anyone has ever truly flourished alone.

At orientation, I told the newest students in this program that Wake Forest business school is three things: a graduate program, a professional school, and a community. In any graduate program, you plumb the depths of the discipline you are studying, and I know for a fact you’ve done that with alacrity and creativity. A professional school introduces you to a field of work and a way of engaging the world, and you are indeed members of the noble profession of business. A community is much more difficult to summarize. At its best, a community is a source of challenge and support.

Please know, on behalf of my faculty and staff colleagues, you are now alumni of the Wake Forest University School of Business, and so this shall ever be your community: we stand ready to challenge and support you.

Congratulations on mastering the art of learning business.