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Brave New World For Professional Schools

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December 6, 2013

This article originally appeared on Evolllution.com on Dec. 5, 2013.

By Henry S. Bienen

Professional schools are looking to extend their reach to the growing population of non-traditional students, who are typically not represented in their halls.

Business and law schools have long had executive education degrees. Further, law, business and medical schools have historically run noncredit courses to help professionals remain current in their fields. Now, all three are concerned with a rapidly declining demand for business administration and law school graduates, as well as having a mission-driven desire to expand internal competencies beyond traditional boundaries.

These desires are leading professional schools to explore the creation of new programs that can integrate needed — and, in some cases, mandatory — ongoing learning opportunities into degrees.

Business schools have created programs in collaboration with engineering schools that are attractive to inventors and entrepreneurs. These programs provide technical folks with business expertise for their would-be startups, helping them gain the knowledge and skills they need to successfully turn their ideas into businesses. Such programs can lead to both master’s degrees and certificates, depending on the school and the program.

Law schools are also exploring opportunities to help professionals gain new knowledge to progress in their own fields. The Northwestern University Law School is in the process of rolling out a Master’s of Science in Law (MSL) degree specifically aimed at professionals with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields of expertise. Though graduates of the new MSL program will not be able to practice law, the program is aimed at giving them a fundamental understanding of how law and business intersect with technology and sciences. Among the legal topics covered in the program will be intellectual property, regulatory matters, business contracting and licensing. Classes will be taught by Northwestern School of Law faculty as well as a mix of professionals from the realms of law, business and government.

These are programs in professional schools that reach across different units within an institution. Continuing studies departments have historically offered such programs, often in partnership with professional schools of law, business and medicine on their campuses.

More than opening up professional schools to non-traditional students — beneficial both to learners who otherwise would not have access to the resources at hand and to the institutions trying to navigate declining enrollments — these programs are spearheading the advance of interdisciplinary education. More and more, employers are looking for their employees to have the technical skills needed to succeed in their jobs and the soft skills required for their employees to advance up the corporate ladder and contribute to the corporation’s success. These types of programs provide professionals with a new toolbox of skills, and help them to think through problems differently.

It’s a brave new world for professional schools.

- Henry S. Bienen is President Emeritus of Northwestern University.