Feature Story

From mitering bedsheets to deciphering spreadsheets

The history of the program and its future are highlighted in the newest addition to the Radford University campus. As the university embraced new and returning students this fall, the COBE building opened its doors to welcome all who choose to study, work and teach the business leaders of tomorrow.

Home Economics at Radford College

Faye Gilbert, dean of today’s College of Business and Economics, said the current comprehensive curriculum has several things in common with the home economics major, first offered in 1934.

“Home economics encompassed several fields of study, for example, interior design, culinary arts, clothing design and creation, food and nutrition. We study consumer sciences today, but the origin of much of the interest in these fields was in home economics and the women who taught the courses and learned these skills.” The term “economics” comes from the ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomia), management of a household or administration.

The college Gilbert leads today has reinvented itself over the decades, adapting to whatever office and classroom space was available and changing with the times. The programs earning national recognition today grew from modest beginnings.

Home economics class

An early Home Economics class at Radford College

From humble beginnings

Classes began this fall in the new $44 million, 110,000-square-foot COBE complex. Besides its state-of-the-art classrooms, conference rooms and gathering spaces, the building features the latest in educational technology and financial research capabilities.

Through the summer, as faculty and staff packed for the move and furniture arrived at the new complex, longtime faculty members reflected on the history of the college. Business and economics courses at Radford have been grouped at various times with the social sciences, the liberal arts, the physical sciences and the education program. Offices and classrooms have moved around with the curriculum.

Professor Emeritus Allen Bures, who retired in 2008, said today’s COBE was shaped by two events in the 1980s: the renovation and rededication of Whitt Hall as headquarters for business and economics, and the first push to win accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

When Bures came for his job interview in fall 1981, renovation was already under way at Whitt Hall, the oldest academic building on campus. Built in 1929 as an elementary school for the teacher training program, the building was originally McGuffey Hall. It was renamed in 1952 in memory of Jeremy Pate Whitt, who served twice as Radford’s interim president.

Bures arrived on campus to find the Whitt building almost empty. “Only five or six people were left in Whitt,” he recalled. “It was really strange.”

Among those remaining was Dean Lee Hall, who hired Bures as chair of the Department of Business in what then was the School of Business and Professional Studies. Besides courses in business and economics, the school taught nursing, typing, culinary arts, interior design and business education.

The unconventional interview setting did not deter Bures, though his first office was in the basement of a residence hall. “It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’m really glad I came to Radford. It was a great experience when Whitt was rededicated and we were all together. You don’t often get such camaraderie.”

Students in Dale Henderson's class as part of the business dress First Friday's

Students in Dale Henderson's class as part of the business dress First Friday's

COBE’s senior faculty member today is Clarence Rose, a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance. He came to RU in 1977 to teach insurance courses while he completed a Ph.D. in public administration and public policy at Virginia Tech. Even three decades later, he has vivid memories of his early days on campus—before air conditioning.

During the Whitt renovation, Rose shared an office in the basement of Pocahontas Hall with colleague Hooshang Beheshti, now a professor in the COBE Department of Management. “Most of us were in basements of dorms with no air conditioning,” Rose said. “It was so warm, it was really hard to do anything from mid-May to mid-September. It was so humid, our papers would be wet.”

Rose said the office he shared with Beheshti was about 10 feet square with no windows and no space for file cabinets. “To sit down, we had to turn sideways to get behind our desks,” he said. “We had to take students up to the lounge for conferences.”

When Whitt reopened in 1983, bringing COBE’s people and programs together under one roof, it was ultra-modern for the time, with a contemporary floor plan and the latest in climate control. Yet it maintained a certain mystique as an old college building, Rose said.

Rose, who is teaching courses in personal finance and principles of insurance this fall in the new COBE complex, said, “Those of us who have been around awhile have paid our dues. This new building is many years overdue.”

COBE’s growth in the next three decades reflected that of business and economics globally, as well as social changes. Though an economic recession plagued most of the world at the start, the 1980s became known as the Decade of Greed, with a financial boom glamorizing the stock market and making folk heroes of maverick business magnate Donald Trump and financier Michael Milken, credited with developing high-yield “junk bonds.” The ‘80s saw increased numbers of women holding prominent positions in management and the military, rapid growth in the number of minority-owned businesses and the first widespread “green” initiatives focused on conservation and sustainability.

As interest grew internationally in business education, COBE’s curriculum changed with the times. One of the last people to earn a degree in home economics from Radford was Estelle Dobbins of Christiansburg, who received a Master of Science in 1984, the final year the program was offered. Dobbins went on to teach at her high school alma mater, nearby Auburn, where she had a 30-year career. At the university, courses in homemaking and secretarial skills made way for renewed emphasis on ethics, financial markets and the increasingly global economy.

Prahlad Kasturi, chair of the Department of Economics, said COBE’s next monumental change began under Dean Donald W. Kroeber, who began discussions during the 1989-90 academic year to earn accreditation by the AACSB.

Estelle Dobbins

Estelle Dobbins

Established in 196 schools of business, AACSB states its mission as advancing the quality of business education. The organization has strict criteria and standards for accreditation, which is held by fewer than 15 percent of the world’s business schools.

The COBE faculty gathered in Whitt, Kasturi recalled, where Kroeber explained that, once the process started, “there was no turning back. Once we go for it, we will make it work.” The faculty voted to go for it.

The process took three years, Kasturi said. The first entailed self-study, with faculty members serving on committees to examine every aspect of the college’s courses and programs for a report to AACSB. The organization’s review team studied the report and recommended that the college take another year to increase the number of faculty publications. In 1992, COBE earned its accreditation.

Kasturi recalls that time as a high point for business education at RU. COBE comprised more than 60 faculty members and 2,100 students. Its two departments became five when management, marketing, and accounting and law spun off as separate entities. Business education was booming. “The late ‘80s were the heyday,” Kasturi said. Courses on global topics such as the European Union were introduced, and the university established the Institute for International Economic Competitiveness, a guest-lecture series that brought in luminaries such as Lester Thurow, dean of MIT Sloan School of Management.

With the boom, COBE once again outgrew its home. The Department of Economics moved to Davis Hall. “People were excited to move out of the basement of Whitt to have their own offices in Davis,” Kasturi said.

A national recession of the early 1990s, however, forced COBE to regroup again. Until the economic slump, Kasturi said, “employees of companies like IBM thought once you joined, you were there for your career. Then came reengineering, downsizing, rightsizing.” As businesses cut staffing through layoffs and buyouts, business school enrollments also declined nationally.

“The recession of 1991 and 1992 hurt higher education generally,” Kasturi said. Donald N. Dedmon, RU’s president at the time, lobbied for more resources from the state, but funding remained tight. Both student enrollments and university budgets stagnated or declined. Dedmon established a College of Global Studies, but it did not succeed, Kasturi recalled.

Under President Douglas Covington, RU established the College of Science and Technology, and information systems, which had been part of COBE, moved to CSAT. “IT had been part of business,” Kasturi said. “When it moved to the new college, business lost several hundred majors.”

COBE coped, reorganizing from five departments to three: economics, management and marketing, and accounting, finance and business law. Despite the challenges of the 1990s, the decade ended with optimism. In 1999, under the leadership of Dean Bruce Blaylock, COBE received its first reaccreditation from AACSB.

“This was a huge accomplishment for the college,” said Blaylock, now a professor in the Department of Management. “From the first internal review and evaluation through readjustments and implementation, the process took years.”

Because accreditation is the mark of excellence in higher education, Blaylock said, getting there and staying there are definitely worthwhile. “This means COBE is in the top tier among business schools internationally,” he said. “It means we hold ourselves—faculty, staff and students—to high standards.”

In the new century, COBE continued to expand its horizons, bringing in well-known economists and authors as guest lecturers. Blaylock’s successor, William Dempsey, promoted an international perspective by inviting guests who included Nobel Laureates and Fulbright Scholars.

Kasturi’s memory of Sept. 11, 2001, is set in Whitt Hall. Just back from a sabbatical, he was in the classroom teaching a course in the economics of crime. Blaylock burst into the room and said, “Turn on the TV.” Together, students and professors watched the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies unfold.

Blaylock and Dempsey set the tone for the day throughout COBE, Kasturi recalled. Rather than cancel classes, they insisted that students see what was happening and that professors relate the situation to their disciplines. “They told us, ‘Keep the TVs on. Let the students learn from this,’” Kasturi said. “Some of my students had relatives in New York and Washington, D.C., and they were very worried. I could see the tension in their faces. My colleagues were visibly upset too.” He applauded the faculty for focusing attention that day on the knowledge to be gained.

President Kyle’s initiative for the planning of a new COBE building began with her first call to action to appoint a design committee to visit other locations to gather ideas for best practices.

This June, just back from a tour of the new building, Kasturi said all faculty offices have windows affording views of the stunning scenery that surrounds the RU campus and that the building is spacious and modern. “It’s taken a long time to come, but President Kyle has been working hard for this.”

Though Dean Gilbert is relatively new to RU, she expresses a deep appreciation for the history and culture of the college she leads, especially its early years as a school of home economics.

“Integrity, teamwork, caring for others—business faculty then, as now, were focused on the development of responsible people,” she said. Though the management strategies and skills to be taught in the new COBE complex this fall are vastly different from those of half a century ago, she said, “the systematic study of design, cultures and economies adds to our lives and life’s balance. Managing a home well is not that different from managing a business well.”