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M.B.A.'s Tout Benefits of Studying Politics

But some executives say it’s a waste of time for business students to take courses on government.

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In the era of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, some business schools are adding political coursework to their curricula to reflect an evolving corporate landscape. But some executives denounce this development as a fad and discourage M.B.A. students from studying politics.

Politics coursework is "the biggest waste of time conceivable" for M.B.A. students, says A.J. Mesalic, director of business development at The Family Hospitality Group, a Las Vegas-based food service supplier and a former Bank of America executive.

The University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business M.B.A. says training in ethics and customer acquisition and retention would be more relevant for M.B.A. students. "Time spent focusing on anything but making your business better is time wasted," Mesalic says.

But business schools across the country are adding electives in contemporary politics into their curricula. "Given the close intertwining between government oversight and the economy, an understanding of political systems and the role of government regulations is essential to all students preparing for careers in business," says William Rhey, dean of the Barney Barnett School of Business and Free Enterprise at Florida Southern College.

[Learn why some M.B.A. programs require ethics courses.]

Some of the top business schools seem to agree with Rhey's view. The Yale School of Management, for instance, is offering the course Washington and Wall Street: Markets, Policy, and Politics; New York University's Stern School of Business recently hosted a dialogue for students on Occupy Wall Street; and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business held a public event titled "Where's the 'I' in Occupy?"

It wasn't just East Coast schools that had Occupy on the teaching docket. Gerry Keim, a professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, is leveraging his new role as chairman of the board of the nonprofit business school consortium, The Washington Campus, to train future executives about the political process.

The Washington Campus brings M.B.A. students to the District of Columbia for a week of meetings with policymakers, lobbyists, and other political professionals. Brian Hoppe, an M.B.A. student at Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business, participated in the Washington Campus program in early January 2012 along with about 60 fellow M.B.A. students from schools across the country.

[Check out the World's Best Universities for politics and international studies.]

"To be honest, politics was not a subject that interested me much at all. I knew very little about it, and I kind of had the attitude that the government operates in its own environment and doesn't have much of an effect on my daily life," Hoppe says. "This experience really opened my eyes to the importance—especially from a business perspective and a future business leader perspective—of understanding the way the federal government is [interacting] with business."

Sarah Kafka, an M.B.A. student at Columbia Business School and copresident of the Social Enterprise Club, agrees that politics and business must be viewed together.

"I think that it is very important for business school students to be aware of what is happening in politics—both within the United States and abroad," Kafka says. "It is especially important for us to understand how business and politics intersect and how business decisions can affect society."

[Read about a survey that says M.B.A.'s face a strong job market.]

"There are students who are talking about Occupy Wall Street and there is certainly a diversity of opinion about the movement and the underlying sense of inequality it stems from," she says. "While politics aren't on the top of everyone's agenda here, there are a lot of students who are very engaged in these topics." She adds that an elective course on modern political economy at Columbia Business School is very popular.

Bonnie Hagemann, chief executive officer at the Oklahoma City-based firm, Executive Development Associates, says there are two reasons future executives need to be well versed in politics: gaining an appreciation for the ways policies will impact their organizations and being able to discuss what is going on in the world.