Superstar Prof Asks: Are B-Schools A Scam?

Sydney Finkelstein: “Current research is not actually practical or relevant, nor does it address societal concerns”

If business schools focus less on research and more on creating elite social clubs, will they remain relevant?

That’s the question that Sydney Finkelstein, Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, is asking. It’s both a question and a warning. Earlier this month, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business held its 2022 Deans Conference with deans from around the globe; on the agenda: changing trends, business school strategy, DEI, and mental well-being. To kick off the conference, Finkelstein led a keynote talk called “Big scam? What’s wrong with business schools, business school faculty, and the study of management.”

“I think business schools have become set in their ways,” Finkelstein says. “We’ve taken for granted our position and our power. As a result, we’re underperforming.”

In his talk, he shed light on the main reasons why we may see a long term decline in business school admission, starting with a few ways in which business schools are missing the mark:


While academics cite each other’s work, much of the research done by B-school faculty doesn’t go much beyond academia – and it definitely isn’t landing in the hands of managers and governmental leaders that will actually benefit from it.

Finkelstein, the author of over 25 books including the bestseller Why Smart Executives Fail, explains that today’s research places an incredible emphasis on methodology, and if we’re not following the rules of the game, it’s difficult to get anything published. “The result is we’ve created this closed loop where we’re talking to each other,” he says. “We’re not actually advancing ideas that will make an impact. And if we’re not publishing work that managers care about – and that addresses big issues in society – then what are we doing?”

Faculty research topics also tend to be incredibly narrow. “We have a crisis,” he says. “We have what I call a ‘factory model’ of research, where our faculty tries to come up with as many studies as they can by cutting topics as narrow as possible. The problem is, no one is actually reading the research.”

He believes that most faculty research isn’t challenging the status quo; rather, it’s reinforcing it. And, if research can only be explained to academics rather than real people, then it needs to be questioned; business schools need to start demanding that people raise their game and study more relevant topics that will actually advance society.


Sydney Finkelstein: ‘We have a crisis’ in business education

Finkelstein says that some of his best ideas have come from teaching – some of which have informed his books and articles, the latter of which number more than 90. However, for a lot of faculty, teaching is seen as a burden. “It’s a fallacy,” he says. “We get fulfilled from teaching and we learn from teaching. If we’re open minded, teaching can help our research dramatically.”

If business school faculty are in the business of creating original work, then disseminating that work to the classroom is what can create impact – on students and the world at large. “Think of our modern world today,” he says. “Fake news inundates the media. I think faculty have a responsibility to society to effectively communicate ideas and combat fake news, and to do that in the classroom.”

But perhaps faculty would feel more inspired to teach if they were doing research that actually mattered – and that they could see help to advance society. “Current research is not actually practical or relevant, nor does it address societal concerns,” he continues. “The reason we aren’t teaching our research is because that research doesn’t have legs.”

Finkelstein says that this lack of impact is causing many B-school faculty to be at-risk of being replaced with clinical faculty adjuncts and PhD students to save money. “Change is already happening. There’s a shifting of balance. If I was running a school, I would seriously consider that as well,” he says.


The core B-school curriculum is another area that needs to be improved upon, Finkelstein says. He says that if you look at core courses across business schools – whether those courses are in a BA, MBA, or EMBA – many are nearly the same. The curriculum has become a commodity business – with most faculty members teaching commodity ideas. “The irony of having a commodity business is that when your product is a commodity, competition is on the basis of price and nothing else. That’s a hard way to think about business school or any university for that matter.”

While most core classes in the business school curriculum only vary slightly from school to school, Finkelstein believes it must continually be updated and innovated upon in order to remain relevant. “The curriculum has to be something that cannot be replicated easily. The experiential side of learning – face-to-face classroom time – must be such that it can’t be replicated somewhere else,” he explains.

In order to make the core curriculum more relevant and impactful, Finkelstein says that student projects should be more applied. He gives an example of bringing in CEOs to interact with different student groups and apply the class topic in order to put theory into practice. “It’s important to not only have faculty teaching relevant research, but to bring in real company challenges and use that as a place to apply conceptual knowledge,” he says.


While most business school deans think that they’re competing with other schools, school locations, and resources, Finkelstein says that the competition is getting much steeper; they’re competing with a whole other set of factors.

These factors include the many students who are choosing to work rather than go back to school – especially since many people don’t want to learn over Zoom since the onset of Covid-19 – as well as affordable courses offered on platforms like Coursera and 360 Learning. Plus, with the ability to find information so easily via Google, LinkedIn, and YouTube, many people are choosing to learn for free rather than go into a mountain of student debt. “These platforms allow people to skip business school if they wanted to, without the ramifications that may have been there before,” he says.

Plus, when Nobel laureates from Oxford and MIT offer courses at a fraction of the price of university tuition, he questions how business school will stay competitive. At this point, Finkelstein believes that the main edge that a business school has is its accreditation capability – no other competitor can provide a degree. However, he’s skeptical that a piece of paper with a nice stamp and brand name on it has legs on which to base its competitive position, especially since roughly 33 million Americans have quit their jobs since 2021, causing companies to be open to hiring those who don’t have university education.

“When companies need people and they can’t get them the traditional way, they’ll start looking elsewhere,” he says.


Finkelstein is also wary of how the focus of business schools has shifted from research and teaching, to creating a sorting mechanism that enables employers to find talent.

“We’re creating a social club for our students where they can create networks and lifelong relationships,” he explains.

While these relationships are a vital part of the B-school experience, he’s noticed a trend: students are less engaged in learning, and more engaged in creating networks that will help them find a job post-graduation. Plus, the amount of people taking the GMAT has been on a downward trend.


While these factors are clearly of concern, there is hope: Business school rankings are helping to create more incentive for universities to focus on impactful teaching and research, as some outlets – such as Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times – are in the process of ranking schools based on measures of societal impact.

AACSB’s new accreditation system focuses on schools creating impactful research. On September 28, 2021, AACSB published a thought paper with SAGE Publishing titled Research That Matters: An Action Plan for Creating Business School Research That Positively Impacts Society. This includes the common components of impactful research and a five-step roadmap that business schools can use to produce research that leads to a positive societal impact.

There’s hope for business students, too. Even if the majority of faculty aren’t doing research that matters, putting some effort into finding those that are will make a huge difference. “Seek out faculty that are doing more impactful research. Try to do some independent studies with them. Most faculty are willing to engage with smart students that are willing to do the work,” he says.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.