Will 2011 Be the Start of Widespread MBA Program Reform?

by Vault Education Editors | January 07, 2011

  • My Vault

As part of a New Years-pegged piece, Businessweek asked different b-school deans and professors for their 2011 resolutions. One of the asked, Professor James O'Toole, hoped that schools would assess their own relevance by asking three questions: "Should we be trade or professional schools?", "Should we stress academic disciplines or area of concern to real businesses?" and "Should faculty be more mindful of preparing students or of their research projects?" 

In 2005, O'Toole co-wrote a widely read and inflammatory Harvard Business Review article which slammed business schools as selfish, outmoded and ethically indifferent. In that article, "How Business Schools Lost Their Way," he and co-author Warren Bennis charged business schools with a failure to impart practical management skills. They scolded them for irrelevant curriculums structured around scientific research, shook their heads at professors who shirked the responsibility of instilling codes of ethical behavior. They believed the schools had broken a very expensive promise to develop true leaders of business.

The core problem, they argued, was that the schools and the faculty had, over the last four to five decades, opted for a scientific model of education over a professional one. Why not be more like medical and law schools? they asked. What followed was outrage.  

That was over five years ago. Writing in Businessweek last spring, the two firestarters reflected on the fact that something so controversial then was now beginning to gain widespread acceptance.

For advancing that heresy we were condemned as "anti-science." Around that time, however, a few enlightened administrators, faculty members, alumni, and students (for example, at Yale and at such "second-tier" institutions as Duquesne's Donahue and Denver's Daniels B-schools, and in Canada, York's Schulich B-school) started connecting the dots among an alarming set of events and trends in the operating business environment. Taking note of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the deindustrialization of North America, public calls for "sustainability," (and later, the nationalization of General Motors and the Wall Street meltdown), they decided the time had come to address social, environmental, and ethical issues in their respective MBA curriculums. Subsequently, those pioneering efforts have had a snowball effect: Last fall, representatives from several dozen B-schools around the world gathered in New York as guests of the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education to share what they were learning from their new initiatives to address the cross-disciplinary concerns previously absent from their curriculums. 

There have been many new hopeful developments. To name a few from this year: Harvard Business School tapped the prominent ethics and leadership scholar Nitin Nohria as its new dean; Wharton, (perhaps weary of having fallen behind HBS and Chicago's Booth in the rankings the last decade?) announced it would follow Stanford and Yale's lead and overhaul its curriculum, adding more flexibility and stronger ethical values, to better prepare its students for the fast-changing, ever-specializing, new world; and QS began a new ranking for MBA programs in CSR and business ethics.

The concern is that all this reform may just be marketing gloss, a public relations corrective to a decade of tarnished reputation from Enron to the Great Recession. Is this similar to the way many corporations co-opted the words and images of the sustainability movement but little of the actual principles and practices? It's probably too early to tell if a new day is here just yet, but I think that as long as the job market remains tough and Wall Street's image venal, business schools will have no other choice but to change. 

 

[Business School Resolutions for 2011- Businessweek]

[How Business Schools Lost Their Way (PDF)]

[B-School Reform: Better Late Than Never - Businessweek]

Filed Under: Education

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