Finance: Research, Policy and Anecdotes

Cass Business School - what’s in a name?

Few used to know the person after whom Cass Business School, Sir John Cass, is named, including yours truly. People often think that CASS is an abbreviation; I was once asked at a conference in Asia, whether I worked for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The reason why Cass Business School bears the name of Sir John Cass is that in 2002 the Sir John Cass Foundation made a major donation to the school.

 

When news emerged that Sir John Cass was a major actor in the British slavery trade, there were calls to change the name. The foundation itself decided to change its name. So, I was certainly happy to see that on July the university announced to immediately remove the name Cass. Problem: not only was there no decision on a new name, but it was not clear what the name would be during the transition period. It very much was and appeared a panic decision, which did not take into account the operational implications or the impact on stakeholders.

 

The loudest opposition has been voiced by alumni and students who “invested in a Cass education and degree” and now claim a loss of this investment. Petitions have been started, lots of protest email written, and it has become clear that rather than take the opportunity for positive rather than reactive change, the process has been bungled.

 

This shows the problems of a purely fee- and market-based university education system, especially for schools that rely so heavily on overseas students. While I have been a supporter of tuition fees, the commoditisation of tertiary education certainly carries its risks, as when investment in a brand name is seen more important than education and public policy concerns.  Let me make clear that I am not dismissing the concerns of students and alumni who feel under distress because of their investment, to the contrary! There is clearly a trade-off, which should have been addressed up-front and cannot be ignored!  And there is a broader debate to be had about the private and social values of education and its funding and  pricing!

 

It also shows the problem of a business school linked to a university that is significantly ranked below the business school. City University London (now known as City, University of London) does not match the reputation or ranking of Cass Business School, a problem not faced by students of the former Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, which also just changed its name.

 

To end on a broader note, universities (including business schools) have a critical role in the public discourse. Their advantage should be that of independence and competence; the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us, however, that we are not just part of the discourse, but of the problem itself. And as this specific event has shown, there are no easy solutions!