Master of science in management capstone course creates expansive experience

Dr. Denis Arnold
Wednesday, July 10, 2024
Students learn from case studies, interviews, real-world coursework

In construction, a capstone completes a building or monument. It is an essential part of the structure — and also an important symbol. Likewise, a capstone class crowns students’ studies symbolically and in practical terms.

This is certainly the case with UNC Charlotte’s 10.5-month fast-track Master of Science in Management program, designed for people with non-business undergraduate degrees. The program’s capstone course wraps up students’ experiences in a distinctive way: they learn from immersive studies of real-world ethical dilemmas, guided by a world-class expert in global business ethics.

"Our capstone class integrates managerial studies, legal studies, ethics and leadership into a single package," says Denis Arnold, who teaches the class. "The leadership component is very significant in terms of what they do in this class. The class members are identifying what constitutes good ethical leadership and what doesn't. In that regard, they develop a set of skills that they wouldn't otherwise have had."

Arnold, the Jule R. and Marguerite Surtman Distinguished Professor in Business Ethics in the Belk College of Business, draws from his extensive research and experiences to shape the course.

"We're trying to give students the tools to be ethical leaders and community members," he said. "Much of what we do with respect to the research has an impact on the class. And the class is very driven by social science research from the last 20 years that tells us what it looks like to manage an ethics and compliance program in a large organization effectively. We want them to understand the design of an ethical organization and to know how to discern red flags."

Case studies offer real-world learning

MSM students in capstone classStudents in the cohort that graduated in May 2024 experienced significant moments of discovery. This was particularly true as they worked as teams on case studies that documented an ethical problem or crisis an organization faced and considered its reputational, legal and financial consequences.

Adam Murray ’23, ’24, a law enforcement professional who previously earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and served in the U.S. Air Force, found himself thinking about his current and future roles through the perspective of the case studies and other experiences in the courses.

"I think about how we can navigate things to make life better for the employee or the officer, as well as being the most efficient officer you can be for the community that you serve," Murray said. "It's still business at the end of the day, and if you view it with that lens, you can make better decisions to be more effective in the long run."

For Bhavisha Naik ’22, ’24, the master’s in management studies gave new context for what she had learned when earning an undergraduate degree in biology and from her other experiences.

"Now that I was in these classes and doing these things, I definitely saw things differently," Naik said. "I've had previous leadership roles, and I'm seeing it from a different perspective. I already was doing some of these practices that we’re learning in class that I didn't know I was doing through innate instinct. But now I know the principles behind it."

Naik was intrigued when she learned about the master’s program. "Hearing it was a business degree for non-business majors stuck in my head," she said. "I thought that having basic business knowledge would be great in anything I decided I wanted to do."

Now, she may explore opening her own physical therapy practice or possibly consulting with people who want to open their own businesses but who lack business knowledge like what she has gained in the master’s program. "The professors really translate the information, and they help you through it," she said. "They really do go step-by-step. All of them have business backgrounds."

In the capstone class, Naik and classmates each interviewed a business owner or leader to gain first-hand insights into ethical business dilemmas and approaches.

"Honestly, I think that was one of my favorite assignments just because I already knew some of the stuff, but it was just nice to hear it from somebody else," Naik said. "I actually interviewed my aunt who owns a travel agency in South Africa. It wasn't just somebody that is in a leadership position, but they also own the business."

She was gratified to learn how her aunt had dealt with issues in an ethical manner and subsequently saw clients reward the ethical behavior. "It goes back to the leadership; it goes back to who's in charge and who's willing to put their foot down when it's something that is ethically wrong," Naik said.

Murray interviewed an entrepreneur with a professional home and office cleaning service.

"I interviewed her because I wanted to know her perspective as a first-generation immigrant, and then also her navigating through being a business owner," he said. "I wanted to see how she makes decisions, how she makes things better for her employees, how she treats her customers, how they make decisions ethically the best that they can be made to serve the community."

Cohort structure yields connections

A cornerstone element of the program is its organization around a cohort structure. Students build a strong bond as they take classes together across the life of their program.

"They have a strong group identity," Arnold said. "I think that's reflected in their interactions in the classroom and with respect to their ability to learn. I think they appreciate the dialogue and the conversation. The case studies that we utilize are a different approach than that of other courses that they're taking. I think they appreciate the ability to have conversations about difficult issues that inform their thinking with respect to managerial leadership. They also have small group exercises that draw out some of the complex subjects that we look at."

Members of the cohort grew close as they encouraged each other and worked in concert to balance their coursework and group projects with family, career and other demands on their time.

At the end, the balancing act and any risk was worth it, at least for him, Murray said.

"Potential is something that you can measure only in retrospect, which basically means that you never know how good you might have become unless you try," he said. "So just try. There's no way to know unless you do it. Life is too short to not know."