Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Business Schools and the Meltdown

Here is but one example of someone arguing that business schools are in part responsible for the global financial crisis. Remember in 2000 when Bush was about to enter the Oval Office and we heard so much of the fact that he would be our first M.B.A. President. Surely, this meant good things for the economy, afterall holding an M.B.A. from Harvard had to mean he would be a good manager, put competant people in important positions, and oversee governmental operations so that they would run as efficiently as a well-oiled machine.

He isn't the only culprit with a business degree from a top business school. Indeed, virtually all the major players that undermined the health of the world economy do. Is thgis guilt by association or a causal link?

I gave a paper five or so years ago when the annual meeting of the Society of Business Ethics was in D.C. It dealt with an Aristotelean approach to corporate responsibility, but the moment from that conference I'll never forget was in the session before me. It was a panel with some of the big names in the field and the topic was the marginalization of business ethics in business schools. The social scientists thought business ethics too fuzzy, too fluffy to be in a serious program. They were having a serious discussion as to whether they even had a place in the M.B.A. programs. Were they just window dressing? Did they really have anything to offer other than pr. value?

I was stunned, but then I came to understand something of the politics of business schools. Business schools are odd things. On the one hand, there are deep and interesting questions of applied psychology, sociology, and ethics that are particular to the workplace. How do we work in groups to best solve problems? How do unequal power relations affect behavior? Are artificial entities like corporations that act independently of any particular mind morally responsible for their decisions? These are questions that can be approached rigorously and whose work can be enlightening about the nature of our world and us as humans in it.

But then business schools are also something else. They are seen as a bulwark against runaway liberalism in the academy. They are the Officers Candidate School for corporate capitalism, producing ready-made middle managers who have been properly indoctrinated. The presuppositions of the curriculum are designed to further the interests of powerful corporations, not to invite open challenges to them the way other traditional academic disciplines have fundamental challenges to central doctrine.

They also function as cash cows for the home institutions. These schools offer many evening classes for working managers looking to advance their careers, classes taught by adjuncts. The spin is that they are taught by working professionals who have real experience in the marketplace and so they can pay less money, no benefits and have it look as if they are not cutting corners. Further, if any of their grads do hit it big, they are more likely to give big money gifts if they think that their world is the one being taught. Rich people like to hold themselves up as superior and having a business school shows that their alma mater respects their way of life. So, universities have every incentive to look the other way in terms of the rigor of teaching as long as the seats are full and the tuition money keeps flowing in.

So, are business schools legitimate? Does the world economy teetering on the brink of disaster show a problem with them? Are they responsible at all? Should they be kept, removed, radically revamped?