Clustered around two TV screens hanging from the wall of a local burger joint, a group of students watches the election results pour in from across the country on November 4.

Students in Len Bierman's class gathered on election night to track the election returns as they came in.
Students in Len Bierman’s class gathered on election night to track the election returns as they came in.

As they compare the coverage from Fox News on the left and CNN on the right, they discuss issues in the individual swing states with more depth than your average undergrad: Will the failing economy in Ohio land the all-important state in the Obama camp? Or will racial prejudice in the state’s large, rural population deliver the vote to McCain? Will the Yucca Mountain proposal, which would bring millions of dollars as well as tons of radioactive waste to Nevada, be attractive enough to residents to keep the state red?

Nearby, two other students share a table as they discuss the candidates. One student, a Muslim and a Democrat, originally from Pakistan; the other, a Texan, a Christian chaplain in the Corps of Cadets, and a staunch Republican. With total respect, they express very different ideals for the country.

“Americans need to unite against poverty and domestic injustices,” affirms the first.

“We need to have safety and security before we can fix anything else,” says the second. Both watch the screens, wondering which opinion would carry the night’s election.

For a group of 24 upperclassmen at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, the 2008 election was filled with more political dialogue than most, thanks to an innovative class taught by Management Professor Len Bierman called “Business Issues and the 2008 Presidential Election.” According to Bierman, the purpose of the once-weekly upper division class was to get students talking about issues they may not have considered when it comes to the intersection of money and politics. “Rarely are things black and white in this arena,” he said. “Even on extreme issues, there are shades of gray. Things are more subtle and complicated than you might think on first blush.”

Rhetoric and dialogue

One thing that set this class apart, said class member Miguel Abugattas, a senior finance major, was its “Ivy League” format. “This class wasn’t about scantrons and textbooks,” he said, but about reading up on a current topic and exploring it through debate. Bierman assigned no textbook for the class, instead asking students to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and read it everyday to keep informed.  Several of the class periods featured guest lectures from experts in fields such as national security and education funding, who provided students with an insider look at the issues.

“Rarely are things black and white in this arena,” says Mays Professor Len Bierman. “Even on extreme issues, there are shades of gray. Things are more subtle and complicated than you might think on first blush.”

The discussion and debate style of the class was important to Bierman, who says his objective was simply to get students to see both sides of the two-party coin. Class assignments forced students to research and examine issues from all angles.  Through written assignments and oral presentations, students were challenged to think critically about issues such as energy, tax policy, healthcare, transportation infrastructure, and communication regulation. “There aren’t any easy solutions to these kinds of problems,” Bierman told students. The remedies to the nation’s problems students proposed will likely never end up before Congress, however, Bierman said that more than anything else, he hopes the class has turned them into more informed citizens.

Bierman noted that the class has also been writing intensive, with each student writing two individual and two group papers. Bierman teamed with the Mays Center for Effective Communication to grade these papers so that students received both feedback on content as well as style and grammatical concerns.

Class discussions focused on the most timely of public policy issues. While the subprime mortgage crisis was in the news daily and investment banks were disappearing, Mays Professor of Finance Don Fraser paid a visit to Bierman’s class to cut through the jargon and explain the state of the economy to students in a guest lecture. Similarly, Tom Saving, director of the Private Enterprise Research Center and a distinguished professor of economics at A&M, spoke to students about the looming problem of Medicare and Social Security, which, if left unchecked, will bankrupt the government in 50 years. As they explored the topics, students asked both professors: How did we get here? Who’s responsible? And what is to be done?

One of the most provocative lessons was from Jim Olson, former CIA operative and current professor at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service. Olson asked students to consider the importance of a well-funded intelligence network, giving examples from the news and from his own 30-year career in espionage. “We are going to be hit again,” he said, in reference to the 9/11 attacks, telling students that sufficient funding for intelligence is essential to national security. “Innocent American lives are stake.”

Olson’s lecture resonated with Jordan Allen, a senior marketing major from Mesquite, Texas. The most important issue in this election for her was national security; Olson’s lecture reinforced her support of John McCain. She says that she feels young people are often ignorant about what candidates really stand for. “People tend to blame who ever is in control when things aren’t going well,” she said. “This class opened up my eyes.”

Swing vote

When guests weren’t presenting, Bierman turned the tables on the students and had them teaching each other. He broke the class into six work groups and tasked each one to present on a swing state, providing their classmates with a comprehensive picture of which issues would be important when it came to capturing that state’s electoral votes. Looking at demographics, local legislation, voting history, and current statewide events, students predicted (with a high degree of accuracy) which party would win Missouri, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Elise Hilgemeier, a senior finance major, says she was most interested this assignment, which helped her to understand how issues specific to one geographic region can impact the entire nation. This type of research kept her involved in the political race, said Hilgemeier.

  • To read a blog from a participant in Bierman’s Business Issues and the 2008 Presidential Election class, click here.

“I was kind of disillusioned with this election,” she said. “I don’t think I would have kept up with it if not for this class.”

Classmate Kaylee Heathcott said Bierman’s class got her more involved as well. “I’ve always had a shallow party affiliation,” she said. After examining issues more thoroughly from both sides, she’s made up her mind. “Now I’m not just a Republican because my parents are.” Heathcott, a senior management major, said that this election had special significance for her and her classmates most of whom are nearing graduation. “For the first time, we are voting about issues that are going to directly affect us in the workplace,” she said.

Like Heathcott, Shez Ismail, a senior marketing student, says this election and the class has helped him to realize his role in politics and society. When he and his classmates graduate, he acknowledges that they will have a special obligation due to their education. “As business people, we are hopefully going to be doing pretty well. It’s our responsibility to look out for others with the wealth we will create,” he says, citing his support of the Democratic Party.