Academic ‘Elders’ Wanted: Inquire Within

This article was originally published on AACSB Insights.

The business school curriculum needs a major reset. While the present variant of shareholder capitalism accelerates climate change and widens income inequality, business schools continue to teach that endless economic growth and consumption are possible. While groups like Business Roundtable, World Economic Forum, and BlackRock have been reexamining the purpose of the firm, we have been largely absent from this debate and continue to teach that its purpose is to maximize shareholder value.

Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman calls shareholder capitalism “a damaged ideology” that “needs to be reinvented for the 21st century,” and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has declared that shareholder capitalism is “unambiguously a failure.” Yet for decades business schools have continued to package the MBA for student consumers in its present and unvaried form.

We need to amend the curriculum to reflect the world as it is now and the world that is yet to come. Our students are already ahead of us, questioning basic assumptions about the market and bringing new attitudes about the economic, social, and environmental purpose of corporations. For instance, today, more than 70% of the Gen Z business cohort want content that addresses climate change.

Who can take on the responsibility of revising an ossified curriculum that still supports 50-year-old notions of shareholder primacy and a variant of the “greed is good” mentality? I believe it is a job for senior faculty who have already earned tenure and established their professional status. I call those who adopt this role “elders.”

Elders stop focusing on their own careers and start looking to the next generation, moving to what David Brooks calls The Second Mountain—a place where they are not self-centered, but other-centered. Rather than seeking extrinsic recognition, they can begin looking within themselves for their deeper measures of meaning, purpose, connection, and legacy.

A Job for Elders

Elders must be the ones to push for curriculum reform. Not only have they developed the vision after years of teaching, but they also have less to lose. They can speak truth to power without suffering career-limiting consequences.

It’s not a task that junior faculty should be pressured to take on, even though they might find it satisfying. Under our current academic system, the rewards for developing new and innovative courses are low, if not negative. If junior faculty hope to achieve tenure, they must publish in A-level research journals. But if they spend time revising the curriculum, they have less time to produce that research.

Senior faculty, on the other hand, have already achieved tenure and other milestones of success, so they can turn away from such extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately, not enough of them seem to want to do that. A colleague once quipped that “we have too many senior professors thinking and acting like junior professors,” chasing the same kinds of academic publications, amassing ever more citation counts, and seeking the affirmation of peers. These pursuits become a never-ending quest.

But at the end of our professional days, it will not be our citation counts and h-index rankings that measure the worth of our careers; it will be the impact we had on others.

I want to challenge my fellow senior faculty members to look beyond rewards and recognition to reconnect with the hopes and dreams they had as young doctoral students. And I’d like them to channel that energy into considering how to remake a curriculum that has remained unchanged for far too long.

A Push for Reform

Revising business school programs to reflect today’s realities—notably, climate change and inequality—requires us to do more than add a few electives. We must teach students to become stewards of the market in order to correct what ails it. To do this, we must take several actions:

  • Help students develop a critical understanding of how multiple capitalisms are structured and the underlying models on which they are based. Explain how these systems have evolved into the form of shareholder capitalism we know today, what is wrong with that variant, and what forms it might take in the future.
  • Reimagine the purpose of the firm, the role of the government in the market, and the role of business in policymaking.
  • Stop teaching metrics and models for business calculations that are based on outmoded, even discredited ideas. Instead, add new models that can provide the tools and vocabulary for addressing what are conveniently called “externalities” or “unintended consequences” but that actually are embedded in our economic systems. Expose the underlying assumptions and implications of discounted cash flow analysis, gross domestic product, consumption, planned obsolescence, perpetual economic growth, and an overriding belief in cutthroat competition as the only form of market strategy.
  • Acknowledge that the problems of the 21st century do not fit into neat disciplinary silos. Introduce more systems thinking to help students make sense of larger social, economic, political, and environmental systems of which business is a part.

A Turn Toward Others

But pushing for curriculum reform is only one action that faculty elders can undertake. They can leave profound impressions on their students, their colleagues, and their institutions if they take three other steps:

Teach the whole student. I would urge senior faculty to help students see their business careers as callings. Move students away from the simple pursuit of private personal gain and toward vocations based on higher values dedicated to serving society.

This approach requires professors to abandon the current “deficit model” of teaching, in which faculty pour their knowledge into students’ brains. Instead, they will aim to touch students’ hearts, not just their heads—inspire them, not just inform them.

I admit, such an approach poses a great challenge to who we are as professors. Whereas we have traditionally seen the classroom as a place where we impart knowledge, now we must see it as a place where we guide students in developing character, wisdom, judgment, and purpose. For some, this will be an unfamiliar role, and they might be unprepared and even unwilling to take it on.

Mentor junior faculty. Guide younger faculty through long-term visions of the arcs of their careers and show them what opportunities exist to achieve their aspirations. For instance, many young professors report a desire to have an impact beyond the academy. Senior professors first can guide them in ways to satisfy that desire slowly while meeting the requirements of the field as it presently stands. That way, once they achieve tenure, the fire will still burn inside them—and they will also have some experience in working outside the university. Then, senior faculty can work to change the institutions of the academy to make this path easier for the next generation of scholars.

One additional way to provide mentorship is to lead by example. Through my own career, I have tried to model a trajectory that shows younger professors that they can bring relevant research to the world of practice without destroying their chances at tenure.

Expand their audiences. I would like to see veteran faculty give more thought to not only what they’re teaching, but whom they’re teaching. Maybe they want to focus on the students at the university. But maybe they want to reach businesspeople, government officials, or the general public. For instance, a professor whose goal is to reimagine the purpose of the firm could address these groups by designing a new course, writing a book on the topic, or speaking out on the issue in conferences and public forums.

The truth is, senior professors can define their roles on any terms they like, so I would advise them to take some time to determine what they want to accomplish in their later years and consider their legacies. This might involve reflecting on why they got into management education in the first place. Relieved of the pressure of earning high citation counts and h-index ratings, they can turn their attention outward and strive to make a difference in the lives of others.

A Personal Journey

This is what I have attempted to do as I have taken up the mantle of elder. At this stage of my career, I want to concentrate more on making a difference in how society interacts with the natural environment, to the betterment of both. I have focused on calling out two areas in which academic institutions are broken and need to be repaired:

Our research norms. I have written and spoken about the need for professors to become more engaged in public and political discourse, conduct research that focuses on the challenges we face, and bring that research to society in an accessible form. In addition, during my time on our school’s executive committee, I have helped make changes in our promotion and tenure process to give more weight to public engagement.

I am not the only one who is critical of the business school research culture. At AACSB’s 2022 Deans Conference, Dartmouth College’s Sydney Finkelstein asked attendees, “Are business schools a scam?” He posed additional questions: “If we’re not publishing work that managers care about, what are we doing? If we’re not publishing work that’s addressing the big issues in society, then who are we talking to?”

The pedagogy of business education. For most of my career, I have attempted to fit concepts of sustainability into the existing norms and structures of the marketplace. I have come to realize this won’t work. Instead, we need to fit the market to the biophysical realities of our world—such as climate change—which means we must reimagine capitalism. This, in turn, means we must reimagine business education.

I’ve worked toward that goal over the last four years by teaching and developing new courses that take a critical look at capitalism. In one course, Business in Democracy, I bring together business and public policy students to consider how business and government can work together to solve society’s challenges. In another, Reexamining Capitalism, I expose students to the foundational thinking of capitalism through the writings of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and others. I then discuss how capitalism is viewed today from the left and right ends of the political spectrum, how it exists in many forms around the world, and how we might change it to address society’s current challenges.

A third course, Management as a Calling, was inspired by a book I wrote with the same title. During this course, which was funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, I take students on weekend retreats where they leave behind their cell phones and social media. I lead them through exercises designed to help them discern their vocations and their goals for serving society. Throughout these sessions, I act less as a source of knowledge and more as a guide, placing students in a context that allows them to develop their own sources of wisdom and purpose.

Finally, I am spending the 2023-24 academic year as a Visiting Climate Fellow at Harvard Business School’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society, where I am writing a book on how to revise business education. I am able to engage in all these activities because I have chosen to adopt the role of elder.

An Invitation

One of my colleagues, upon shifting to emeritus status, said she will only do what brings her joy. I love her outlook, but my question is: Why wait? Do it now. Change the extrinsic and ephemeral rewards of our field by defying them. Take the opportunity to define the role of the academic as you wish, with all its creative potential.

As I consider the career of the typical academic, I have begun to use the metaphor of a jazz musician. If you’re a musician at the beginning of your career, you must start by practicing your scales and learning your craft. Soon, you will be able to play music other people have written. Eventually, you can play what is in your heart—not to inflate your ego, but to express what is inside you.

If you’re a senior professor, I invite you to do the same. Improvise. Be content with the years of work you have invested to establish yourself in your field, and turn your attention to others. The world needs more academic elders. The field of management education needs you.

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (U.S.) professor of sustainable enterprise at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School for Environment & Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He is a visiting climate fellow at Harvard Business School’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society.


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