A Sharp Critique of Business Education

An economics columnist thinks M.B.A. students need more context in their curriculum.

Writing in the September 26 edition of The Economist--certainly no radical outpost--the new columnist, identified as "Schumpeter," launches sharp criticisms of business education in the wake of the financial crisis. Harvard Business School (HBS) and its M.B.A. program, as perhaps the best known institution and degree in the field, are not spared. The column, titled "The pedagogy of the privileged," explores what it calls the failure of business schools "to reform themselves in the light of the credit crunch." According to the lead:

This has been a year of sackcloth and ashes for the world’s business schools. Critics have accused them of churning out jargon-spewing economic vandals. Many professors have accepted at least some of the blame for the global catastrophe. Deans have drawn up blueprints for reform.

The result? Precious little. Business schools have introduced a few new courses. Students at Harvard Business School have introduced a voluntary pledge “to serve the greater good” among other worthy goals, which about half of this year’s graduates embraced. But for the most part it is business schooling as usual. The giants of management education have laboured mightily to bring forth a molehill.

Schumpeter is at pains to lament this outcome: "In recent years about 40 percent of the graduates of America’s best business schools ended up on Wall Street, where they assiduously applied the techniques that they had spent a small fortune learning. You cannot both claim that your mission is 'to educate leaders who make a difference in the world,' as HBS does, and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign."

The column argues that business education is clearly effective in boosting productivity and other measures of companies' performance--and that measures to increase training in ethics and corporate social responsibility make sense. But Schumpeter finds a lack of context and historical understanding still painfully lacking:

Would-be business titans need to learn that economic history is punctuated with crises and disasters, that booms inevitably give way to busts, and that the business cycle, having survived many predictions of extinction, continues to prey on the modern economy. The 2008 debacle might have come as less of a surprise if all those MBAs had been taught that there have been at least 124 bank-centred crises around the world since 1970, most of which were preceded by booms in house prices and stockmarkets, large capital inflows and rising public debt.

History courses aside, business schools need to change their tone more than their syllabuses. In particular, they should foster the twin virtues of scepticism and cynicism. Graduates in recent years, for example, seem to have accepted far too readily the notion that clever financial engineering could somehow abolish risk and uncertainty, when it probably made things worse. It is worth noting that such scepticism is second nature to the giants of financial economics, as opposed to the more junior propellerheads. Andrew Lo, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, was fond of pointing out that in the physical sciences three laws can explain 99 percent of behaviour, whereas in finance 99 laws can explain at best 3 percent of behaviour.

That skepticism is all the more warranted, according to Schumpeter, in light of business schools' chief shortcoming:

The original sin of business schools is boosterism. Professors are always inclined to puff the businesses that provide them, at the very least, with their raw materials and, if they are lucky, with lucrative consultancy work. HBS has produced fawning studies of almost every recent corporate villain from Enron (which was stuffed full of HBS alumni) to the Royal Bank of Scotland. A taste for cheerleading has been reinforced by the rise of a multi-million-dollar management-theory industry. Professors with dollar signs in their eyes are always announcing the birth of the latest revolutionary management technique or the discovery of the hottest new “supercorp.”

Business schools need to make more room for people who are willing to bite the hands that feed them: to prick business bubbles, expose management fads and generally rough up the most feted managers. Kings once employed jesters to bring them down to earth. It’s time for business schools to do likewise.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, policymakers and businesspeople alike are rethinking regulation--as in this essay by HBS's David Moss--incentives, and more. HBS's centennial celebration last fall, which coincided with the peak of the financial crash, looked both backward and forward. In the months and years ahead, more such rethinking about the school's teaching and research will undoubtedly progress and make its way into the M.B.A. program--a welcome development.

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