Get ready for yet another cheap shot at business schools. This coming month will see the publication of “Shut Down the Business School: What’s Wrong with Management Education” eloquently authored by a little-known professor from a business school that fails to make either the Financial Times or The Economist rankings.
An excerpt from the book, just published by The Guardian, sports the even more provocative headline: “Why We Should Bulldoze The Business School.” Written by Martin Parker, a professor of organization studies at the University of Bristol, the piece takes one cheap shot after another at business education. Parker writes that the “knowledge” a business school sells is “vulgar” and “stupid,” that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are mere “window dressing,” a “fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans,” and that the business school will most likely be the “most ostentatious building” on a university campus.
Parker, who has previously written about angels, shipping containers, art galleries, and outlaws. claims that business schools are essentially “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves. In some senses, that’s a description of capitalism, but there is also a sense here that business schools actually teach that ‘greed is good.’”
SUCCESS BREEDS ENVY. SPECTACULAR SUCCESS INVITES CONTEMPT
This scathing critique is hardly new. Earlier this year, a history professor penned a critique for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Business Schools Have No Business In The University.” Last year saw, the Harvard Business School was raked over the coals in The Golden Passport, a book that was as much an attack on HBS as it was a condemnation of the business school industry, its students and graduates.
Why all the hostility? Success breeds envy. Spectacular success invites contempt. The market has spoken, and business schools have won. The MBA is the most popular graduate degree in the U.S. Business is the most popular major, with many colleges having to place limits on enrollment because the demand to study business at the undergraduate level is that high.
The reason for this success is understandable: A business education delivers results–beyond an ROI calculation. It’s a path toward a more meaningful career and life. It’s a way to push the odds of gaining immediate employment in your favor. Organizations want business-educated professionals because they know they can hit the ground running. And the basic skills learned in business school are incredibly useful to people no matter where they end up, in nonprofits and NGOs, government agencies, hospitals, and the military.
MOST CRITICISM IS ILL-INFORMED AND OUT OF DATE
More often than not, the criticism leveled at business education has little relevance today. The critics tend to attack business schools for things more common in the 1950s and 1960s rather than the 1990s and 2000s, claiming that business education is too theoretical, doesn’t focus enough on leadership, teamwork and collaboration, fails to see business as truly global, diminishes ethical values, and promotes greed.
None of that is true. Schools have invested vast resources in experiential learning, put major focus on leadership development, forced students to work in teams to nurture their collaborative abilities, and have completely internationalized the curriculum. They’ve brought on more faculty and students with non-native passports, adding greater numbers of global case studies and sending students abroad for immersive learning opportunities in nearly every country of the world.
The need for a moral compass and ethical behavior is drummed into business students ad nauseum. A greedy master of the universe wouldn’t even be able to get into a highly selective business school. Admissions would toss their applications in the reject pile faster than a hungry dog goes after a bone. The vast majority of business students today do not merely express deep concern for community and the less fortunate; they do something about it, creating social enterprises, leading non-profit organizations, and volunteering their time to do real good in the world.
Truth is, the business school is often one of the few academic units on a university campus that is entrepreneurial and innovative, in demand, solvent, and returning substantial capital to the university to help them continue to support non-solvent departments that often haven’t changed with the times.
THE AUTHOR PUTS A NEGATIVE GLOSS ON NEARLY EVERY ASPECT OF BUSINESS EDUCATION
Parker seems to ignore these realities, putting a negative gloss on nearly every aspect of business education. Consider his view of the discipline of finance. “This is a field concerned with understanding how people with money invest it,” he writes. “It assumes that there are people with money or capital that can be used as security for money, and hence it also assumes substantial inequalities of income and wealth. The greater the inequalities within any given society, the greater the interest in finance, as well as the market in luxury yachts…The purpose of this form of knowledge is to maximise the rent from wealth, often by developing mathematical or legal mechanisms that can multiply it. Successful financial strategies are those that produce the maximum return in the shortest period, and hence that further exacerbate the social inequalities that made them possible in the first place.”
Really? Never mind that pension funds—which allow hard-working individuals to retire with some sense of security and comfort—hold over $20 trillion in assets, managed largely by what is taught in finance classes at business school. Never mind that finance is a discipline that enables the efficient investment of capital to fund new innovations, companies, even industries that provide meaningful employment for people.
Parker’s view of human resource management is just as jaundiced. “The name of the field is telling,” he writes, “since it implies that human beings are akin to technological or financial resources insofar as they are an element to be used by management in order to produce a successful organization. Despite its use of the word, human resource management is not particularly interested in what it is like to be a human being…It is also the part of the business school most likely to be dealing with the problem of organised resistance to management strategies, usually in the form of trade unions. And in case it needs saying, human resource management is not on the side of the trade union.”
WHO SHOULD REALLY GET THE BULLDOZER?
In truth, human resources courses in business school are about helping people make the most of their talents and abilities. It’s understanding how motivation and incentives play a role in behaviors. It’s about smartly selecting people and treating them well because your organization’s success will largely depend on an inclusive, diverse and supportive culture of people who feel good about going to work and believe that what they contribute makes the world a better place.
While there is always room for improvement, business education has never done a better job at turning out thoughtful, driven and compassionate young graduates than it does right now. By and large, the people who go to business school today are seeking a life with purpose, a career with meaning, and a desire to contribute to the greater good.
If Parker wants to bulldoze part of the academy, he might start not with buildings, departments or schools but with professors who dump mindless criticism into the marketplace of ideas.