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B-School Reform: Better Late Than Never


Five years ago we were in near despair over the deteriorating state of graduate business education. Increasingly, we had grown concerned by the fact that too many MBA programs—often those at prestigious research universities—were failing to (a) impart useful skills; (b) develop leaders; (c) instill high ethical norms; and (d) prepare mangers to deal with complex, cross-disciplinary, nonquantifiable issues. So we did what professors invariably do when they have bees in their bonnets: We put pen to paper. The article we wrote, "How Business Schools Lost Their Way," was published in the Harvard Business Review, and, while we wish it had been otherwise, the professoriate's initial reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

Our call for reform of the MBA curriculum didn't fall on deaf ears as we had anticipated it would; instead, it became the shot heard 'round the B-school world. Among the faculty at many B-schools, our critique generated considerable anger and vituperation: They responded as if we were "flat earthers," greeting our proposal for change with as much welcome as the proverbial foreign object in a punch bowl. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile), the dean at the time reportedly ripped our article to shreds at a new student orientation. How's that for a warm Wharton welcome?

Recently, Joel M. Podolny, who in his five years as dean of Yale's School of Management (Yale Full-Time MBA Profile) successfully led that institution to the forefront of innovation, captured the manner in which the article was received: "Based on my interactions with colleagues from academia over the past several years," he said, "… there is a large number in the academy who have reacted strongly to this article, though invariably in a negative fashion and, of course, invariably without reading the article."

Like Professional Schools

We were surprised by both the nature and decibel level of the response. After all, what we proposed wasn't exactly the academic equivalent of The Communist Manifesto. In fact, we offered what we thought was a modest proposal for reform: to transform the institutions of graduate business education into true professional schools along the lines of those offering law and medical degrees. At medical schools, for example, an M.D. professor who specializes in developing new surgical methods—publishing her results in practitioner-oriented journals and devoting her time to the hands-on teaching of med students and interns—is viewed by her institution as the equal of a Ph.D. biologist who spends all his time in the lab doing theoretical research and publishing in journals read only by other scientists (while never getting anywhere near an M.D. candidate, let alone a patient). This model has been widely adopted because medical schools see a need to provide both scientific research and professional training for docs.

Sounded like a good model to us. Yet at most of the nation's leading B-schools, the trend was to hire, reward, and promote only the equivalent of the med school's "pure science" biology professor. In effect, the faculties at prestigious B-schools (and their wannabes) were increasingly composed of discipline-oriented professors, researchers who saw themselves as, say, economists and psychologists, and who knew (or cared) little about the practical world of business organizations or about teaching MBAs how to lead them. By way of illustration, the likes of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, and Tom Peters (all with PhDs) would not be hired by any major business school today. Hence we proposed that B-schools halt this trend by adopting a professional school model that embraces faculty pluralism. We concluded that, like medical schools, B-schools need both rigor and relevance, and if those two characteristics could be found in a single professor, so much the better. But failing that—as most often is the case—both discipline-oriented and practitioner-oriented faculty would need to be hired (and then rewarded equally to prevent the formation of the invidious distinctions that invariably arise in highly stratified, two-class systems).

In the Wake of Enron

For advancing that heresy we were condemned as "anti-science." Around that time, however, a few enlightened administrators, faculty members, alumni, and students (for example, at Yale and at such "second-tier" institutions as Duquesne's Donahue and Denver's Daniels B-schools, and in Canada, York's Schulich B-school) started connecting the dots among an alarming set of events and trends in the operating business environment. Taking note of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the deindustrialization of North America, public calls for "sustainability," (and later, the nationalization of General Motors and the Wall Street meltdown), they decided the time had come to address social, environmental, and ethical issues in their respective MBA curriculums. Subsequently, those pioneering efforts have had a snowball effect: Last fall, representatives from several dozen B-schools around the world gathered in New York as guests of the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education to share what they were learning from their new initiatives to address the cross-disciplinary concerns previously absent from their curriculums.

In a parallel effort, Rakesh Khurana at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) is leading a movement to make B-schools into professional schools, starting with the Oath Project, in which MBA candidates across the country are voluntarily swearing to a professional code of conduct, à la the oaths taken by lawyers and doctors. And within the past year, such influential scholars as Harvard's Jay Lorsch, Michael Beer, and Michael Tushman have argued that practical publications oriented toward mangers (for example, Harvard Business Review articles) should be counted as heavily for promotion and tenure as purely scientific and theoretical research. Of course, the main accrediting body of business schools is still lagging years behind this reform movement (ditto the discipline-based associations to which professors often show greater loyalty than to the universities that pay their salaries).

But all told, it seems to us that there is now progress toward reform. Recently we ran into a professor who had been one of the most vocal critics of our "controversial" article, a former president of the professional association to which most management professors belong, who told us: "For years, I was outraged by your HBR piece. Then, a month or so ago, I read it. Actually, it's not all that unreasonable." Well, that's what progress amounts to in academia.

James O'Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. Warren Bennis is the Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. His 30th book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, will be published this year.

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