Business Schools

In Defense of the MBA


A University of Washington professor argues that the degree isn't the problem, it's the solution—to poorly run companies, unethical managers, and a crippled economy

During this recession it has been disappointing to see arguments against the MBA degree. If you listen to the loudest critics, you would start to believe that the MBA is directly responsible for the premature demise of capitalism. I find these criticisms to be superficial, knee-jerk responses to larger problems. Largely speaking, these attacks on the MBA throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

I speak from experience. Over the past 10 years I have been directly involved with MBA students as an educator and administrator. I routinely see the benefits of the MBA degree in action, and this experience has made me a passionate believer in its power. MBA education transforms lives and careers. I am in touch with entrepreneurs who are seeking out transformational business opportunities in a downturn. I see graduates rapidly rise within their corporations to significant leadership positions. I see quiet computer programmers turn into passionate leaders during the course of their MBA education. I personally know a scientist working in a lab who transformed into a marketing director as a direct result of MBA education. The list goes on. I regularly see the MBA change lives, making it hard for me to accept the hand-wringing and disproportionate criticism.

The MBA degree is central to how we should be approaching capitalism. It is part of the solution—not the problem. Join me in a thought experiment. Imagine a world where there are no American business schools or MBA graduates. Would that be a better world? For three reasons, I don't think so. First, the MBA enables key competencies. Running today's corporation is not akin to running a lemonade stand. It requires an in-depth understanding of theories, tools, and frameworks. The MBA imposes an analytical discipline on business problems. The central problem with Enron, AIG (AIG), or the latest scandal of the month is incompetence. Some firms are run poorly. Period. Shouldn't more and better education be the path to solving these problems as opposed to no education at all? Will the next Enron be avoided as a result of more or less education?

Second, the MBA helps students learn from the mistakes of others. The case study method, a central part of MBA pedagogy, is predicated on this idea. Students learn to be decision-makers and take a stand on available data. They see how their analysis can lead them astray if they are not careful. Third, the MBA helps students learn from industries other than their own. Too often corporate employees get caught up in the issues surrounding their industry. They meet people just like themselves at seminars and trade shows who act as echo chambers rather than spaces for discourse. The MBA is their chance to learn from colleagues in other industries and to view a problem from multiple perspectives. If the MBA degree were not available, our corporations would be run by unqualified managers who would get soundly beaten in a global marketplace.

robust debate: the secret mba sauce

The two most common arguments against MBA graduates are: They are analysts who cannot communicate, and they are intrinsically unethical, rapacious capitalists. Unfortunately, both of these criticisms take aim at old stereotypes rather than present reality. Every single business school that I follow has made a serious attempt to include programs in communication and ethics. The MBA programs on my campus start with a retreat where students get an in-depth immersion in ethics and ethical decision-making. Communication is part of the DNA of all our courses. We believe leadership skills can be taught and developed. Class participation is par for the course.

I came across the argument that learning from an MBA education is equivalent to what can be gained from simply reading a couple of popular business books or textbooks. These opponents miss the point that the "secret sauce" of an MBA classroom is the robust discussion. Robust argumentation based on evidence is the de facto mode. Classmates challenge each other on the strength of these arguments en route to a class consensus. Participating in such an environment strengthens the students' ability to analyze, communicate, persuade, and build consensus while incorporating different points of view.

Capitalism has its critics at this point in our history. However, it is not going away. We need to educate the next generation of smart, ethical, and passionate capitalists who will help us build the next world-beater. What better platform to do this than the MBA degree?

Sandeep Krishnamurthy is associate director of graduate programs and associate professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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