Business Professor Wins Aspen Institute ‘Ideas Worth Teaching Award’

Learning how to create a monopoly is typically not included in a business school curriculum, so Pitt Business professor Barry M. Mitnick urges his students to listen up.

“I tell students to pay close attention, because they won’t get this in their other classes,” he says. 

His goal is not to provide a primer on shady practices for a new generation of magnates, “but shouldn’t we understand the aspects: what factors are manipulable to enable the creation of monopolies?” 

How John D. Rockefeller built the giant Standard Oil monopoly is one of many stories in Mitnick’s business history course, Market Manipulations: Crises, Bubbles, Robber Barons and Corporate Saints.

What caused the Great Recession and the preceding events that are increasingly referred to as the Panic of 2008? Why did so many years pass between this and the 1929 market crash that preceded the Great Depression, when panics tend to occur on a 15-20 year cycle?

Barry MitnickMitnick’s course, focused on U.S. business history from 1835-1935, weaves a semester-long web of intrigue intertwining tales of labor unrest, backroom deals forged in smoke-filled rooms, muckraking journalists, regulators, speculators, scamsters and reformers, to illustrate how—for better or worse—business forces have interacted, and continue to interact, with other institutions in society. 

The objective of the course is to help students understand the major kinds of market manipulations, their historical contexts and consequences, and what insights they can provide for modern business behavior.

It’s a worthy topic, according to the Aspen Institute, which recognized it with a 2019 Ideas Worth Teaching Award—one of only 10 courses worldwide to be selected.

This award, announced Dec. 9, honors “faculty who are redefining business education—providing learning experiences that equip managers of tomorrow with the context, skills and decision-making capabilities needed to lead in an increasingly complex business environment—and world.”

It’s not the first time this prestigious international organization has recognized Mitnick’s work. He was a finalist awardee in Aspen’s 2014 Faculty Pioneer Awards

An uncommon course

Mitnick views the class as “a social science course viewed through the lens of history” in which students can examine examples from the past to identify forces that affect market trends today and into the future. 

“This is about patterns of behavior,” he said. “We look at panics, individually and all together, and then can see the patterns.” 

The course is uncommon, in part because business history is rarely taught in business schools, “It’s a subject more likely to be taught in a history or an economics department,” he said. 

“It’s important for business schools to go beyond their silos,” Mitnick said. “You can major in finance or accounting, but you might not learn about business. There’s a benefit to understanding what business is really like.” 

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Its Business and Society Program works with executives and scholars to align business decisions and investments with the long-term health of society and the planet. The program recognizes the power of business school teaching to influence the culture embedded within capitalism and, as a result, has been honoring innovative faculty since 1999.

And, while Mitnick offers a version of the course to MBA students, his award-winning undergraduate course, offered in collaboration with the University Honors College, is open to non-business students—a rarity for the College of Business Administration.

The course’s cast of characters includes J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as well as Pittsburgh industrialists Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse and the local bosses more familiar to students as the namesakes of nearby landmarks and city streets such as Magee, Flinn and Bigelow.

Given the city’s role in the nation’s industrial heritage, “It’s a course about Pittsburgh and its history as much as anything else,” Mitnick said. “The concepts are universal, but distinctly Pittsburgh,” he said. “This course could be taught elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

A highlight of the semester is a trip to the nearby Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a rusting remnant of the ironworks that supplied the Homestead Steel Works where, in 1892, Pinkerton security forces and striking workers clashed in the bloody Battle of Homestead. Mitnick sets the stage by lecturing on the Homestead Steel Strike—technically, a lockout by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie—during the 20-minute van ride from campus to the site on the banks of the Monongahela River.

The course’s history 

“I developed the course to play to my strengths and use my training in social sciences and history to try to offer a uniquely valuable experience for students,” said Mitnick, a professor of business administration and of public and international affairs in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, who also teaches a course in business and politics.

He holds master’s and PhD degrees in political science and has a deep interest in history. “Events in history allow you to know about the future,” he said. 

Mitnick has taught business ethics courses, but found the large-scale required courses frustrating “because you can’t get to know students as easily or talk individually,” he said. “This course is the total opposite,” he said, noting that the honors elective is his favorite course to teach. The lecture-and-discussion-based course, offered each fall, drew 21 students this year.

A student perspective 

“It was interesting to learn how the titans of industry manipulated the market to make a ton of money, and how it came at the expense of a lot of working people,” said Sam Ressin, a senior majoring in economics and statistics who took the honors elective this fall. “There were really interesting descriptions about all the scams and exploits in American history in the economic market. We learned about these outrageous acts, and what we can generalize about the effects,” he said.

The concepts are universal, but distinctly Pittsburgh. This course could be taught elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.

Barry Mitnick

“I’d learned about Carnegie and Rockefeller only briefly in high school and I had no idea of the important role J.P. Morgan played in saving the U.S. economy—twice. I always thought he was a bad guy, but now I have more appreciation about these figures in history.” 

Ressin, who’d never taken a course in the business school, said he enjoyed the opportunity to take a deeper dive into how market trading happens, how the Federal Reserve works and what factors affect interest rates. “Telling it through these stories makes the topic more approachable. It helped me understand market impacts and events,” said Ressin. 

He said the Carrie Furnaces tour was a highlight of the semester. “We talked in the classroom about Andrew Carnegie and his mills, and then we got to go visit one,” said Ressin. 

“Right here is where the workers would be pouring the iron. We could see where the rail cars would come in. We saw the site of the Homestead Strike. It was unbelievable that there was a small massacre here. He helped us picture how the Pinkertons came up the river and where the first shots were. We were able to see that history,” Ressin said. 

“Throughout the course, Professor Mitnick pointed out important details and why we should care about them. And he made it fun,” Ressin said, adding that Mitnick might don a top hat reminiscent of the Gilded Age or pass around stereoscope pictures of 1880s New York City to enhance the discussion. 

“The cherry on top was his enthusiasm. He was always excited to teach us,” Ressin said. “This was not a class where you’d want to just do what’s necessary to get a grade.

“It really was one of the best classes I’ve taken here at Pitt.”