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Prof Decries ‘Boozy’ MBA Culture

Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer

Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer

A highly prominent business school professor at Stanford University is decrying what he calls a “booze, cars and houses” culture at top business schools that has taken the focus away from academics and learning.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a long-time professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, says he believes that MBA programs have essentially become two years of vacation and partying for twenty-something students, a chance to have the college experience they may have missed when they were undergraduates.

“If and when business schools become more like many of their professional school brethren—where status comes primarily from academic/professional accomplishment, not from who can hold the most liquor or put on the best show—not only will less wealthy students no longer be disadvantaged, but the culture will change for the better—from booze, cars, and houses to ideas,” he writes in an essay published today (Sept. 10) by Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Pfeffer is no stranger to provocative opinion. Though he has taught at Stanford’s B-school for 34 years since 1979, Pfeffer also has been an outspoken critic of MBA programs and what is taught in them. His latest criticism was prompted by a New York Times front-page story on Sunday (Sept. 8) on Harvard Business School (see Section X: Harvard Business School’s Secret Society).

BUSINESS SCHOOL HAS BECOME WAY MORE ABOUT THE PARTIES THAN THE COURSEWORK

The article explored the school’s efforts to deal with gender inequality as well as Mad Men-like behavior on campus that has led some MBA students to participate in what the Times called decadent parties and travel. The Times focused exclusively on Harvard Business School, but Pfeffer believes the challenges described in the story are endemic to other top MBA programs including Stanford.

“The discussions of the role of social class at Harvard Business School apply to all the leading business schools where, like the rest of the world, inequality in wealth has grown tremendously,” writes Pfeffer. “But these discussions mostly miss the underlying cause of the problem: Students from all social backgrounds who gain admission to top schools all have the intellectual horsepower to effectively compete with their classmates in academics. Not all students have equal ability to compete when it comes to participating in and throwing lavish parties…Business school has become way more about the parties than about the course work, which has left poorer students at a social—and professional—disadvantage.”

Pfeffer acknowledges that a big reason many students go to business school is for the relationship-building network, but he contends that it has gone too far. “Whether students should pay $50,000-plus annually in tuition for networking opportunities is, of course, an interesting economic calculation,” the academic says. “Part of the reason the investments get made is the understanding that there are important, wealthy, and well-connected people in the leading schools. I believe the phrase is: ‘It’s a target-rich environment.’

THE SAME PROBLEM DOESN’T EXIST IN LAW OR MED SCHOOL

“Missing from the current discussion of the ‘class divide’ at B-schools is: Why haven’t the problems of social class beset law schools, medical schools, and schools of engineering—professional schools that also have students from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds who arrive at leading universities with unequal financial resources—particularly for extracurricular activities? As one former student told me when I suggested doing a study in which one would take head shots of students from various professional schools and see if random outsiders could do better than chance in picking out the B-school students: ‘Of course, you could sort them. The business school students are better looking, taller, and leverage their social skills more in their careers.’”

At Stanford, he writes, the partying atmosphere began with an event called FOAM (Friends of Arjay Miller, a former Ford Motor senior executive and dean of the school). “As sort of a joke, a group that originally called itself the 11 Percenters and then became known as FOAM began with a Tuesday-night bar scene—since there are no classes on Wednesday,” says Pfeffer. “Some students thought it would be cool to go to Las Vegas on a Wednesday during the winter quarter—hence, Vegas FOAM—with a Tuesday-night departure, and some people dressed in costumes. Then people began going to the Sundance Film Festival—a majority of the student body now make that trek. And, of course, there are the ski houses and ski weekends, the rental houses in tony Atherton and Woodside that some second-years live in, the various charity fundraising balls, and the numerous other events and trips that I can’t even keep track of.”

DON’T MISS: SCENES FROM HARVARD’S SUPER RICH MBAS or CONCERN OVER HARVARD’S ‘MAD MEN’ CULTURE