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Trio of Deans Defend the MBA

A trio of high-powered business school deans from Harvard, Northwestern, and Berkeley yesterday defended MBA education and their own students on a National Public Radio show from Boston. The deans said that their MBAs are more socially conscious than ever before, keenly interested in sustainability, non-profit management, and entrepreneurship.

At the most contentious point in the 45-minute interview, WBUR On Point moderator Tom Ashbrook sharply challenged Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria for saying that an increasing number of Harvard MBAs are going into social enterprises and start-ups. Nohria was joined on the show’s panel by Sally Blount, the new dean of Northwestern’s Kellog School of Management, and Rich Lyons, dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The amazing thing about MBAs is that they go and work in all walks of society,” said Nohria, who assumed the deanship of Harvard in July. “People think we only turn out MBAs who become consultants and investment bankers, but the reality is that we have people who go to work in social enterprise and in small business. What people want of us is leaders who can contribute to all these different types of organizations in society. Frankly, there’s nothing in the world that I can think of that is going to get meaningful solutions…without business playing a meaningful role.”

Ashbrook interrupted the dean. “That’s great and it sounds sweet,” said Ashbrook with a note of sarcasm, “but more than half of your grads go into consulting and finance.” He then went on to quote the school’s own career services statistics to prove his point.

Countered Nohria: “In fact, in the last several years, it’s worth noting that we’ve had more students leave Harvard Business School and start companies straight as entrepreneurs. So we‘ve had 45 last year, 5% of our class. If anyone of them becomes the next Google or anyone of them becomes Facebook or anyone of them becomes the next Wal-Mart, we could have created more value than you can imagine. An equal number joined social enterprises of various kinds, which is a rapidly increasing number. So as the world is looking for leaders to find solutions to problems that governments alone can’t solve, we have students who literally go out and help society in all walks of life, and I think that is what business schools must be known for.”

Ashbrook quoted Dean James Ellis of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School who said that “we taught our students how to look for the cracks in the economy and we taught them how to exploit those cracks.” He then asked Kellogg’s Blount if Kellogg students leave the school looking for such cracks to exploit. “By and large, if you talk to the young people entering business school these days, many of them do want to find the answers that are going to change the world,” responded Blount. “It’s amazing if you walk through our halls: we have people starting not-for-profits. We have people going to Africa distributing $2 AIDS tests and building businesses around that, and we have students starting reading programs. You would be heartened to see the people walking our halls. It isn’t matching the stereotype of these hard and fast people.”

Lyons, however, acknowledged that business schools need to change both the way they select students as well as the content of their programs to turn out more socially conscious graduates. “If you ask person on the street if business schools have been breeding grounds for over confidence and self focus, you will get vigorous nods. We do not intentionally done that, but we have un-intentionally done that to a degree and that is one of the elements we need to think harder about. There are a lot of challenges facing us, and a lot of opportunities. The business sector has looked at business schools and said look you need to change.” “We got caught up sometimes in short-term thinking,” conceded Nohria.

Blount was optimistic about the future of the U.S. economy. “Manufacturing is what started us,” she said, “but it was innovation and creativity which has propelled us forward. If we’re going to stay ahead, we have to be thought leaders and invest in education. We have an incredible spirit embedded within the American people that we have to keep energizing. One of the things we’re all learning in this globalized, complex economy of ours is that the rules are changing constantly. What we have to do is educate people to respond to those changing rules of play. It’s not obvious right now what the answer is but it also wasn’t obvious 15 years ago we would circle the globe with the Internet in as brief a time as it did. You and I cannot imagine what is coming. All we can do is equip the next generation to navigate the unprecedented levels of social and economic complexity and uncertainty. That’s what universities are here for: to teach people how to think.”