Is It the B-Schools?

I think that John Benjamin’s attack on business schools in The New Republic is misplaced or at least inadequate. He’s critical of them because a) they don’t consider broader societal implications and b) they’re a monoculture:

But in truth, MBA programs are not the open forums advertised in admissions brochures. Behind this façade, they are ideological institutions committed to a strict blend of social liberalism and economic conservatism. Though this fusion may be the favorite of American elites—the kinds of people who might repeat that tired line “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative”—it takes a strange form in business school. Elite business schooling is tailored to promote two types of solutions to the big problems that arise in society: either greater innovation or freer markets. Proposals other than what’s essentially more business are brushed aside, or else patched over with a type of liberal politics that’s heavy on rhetorical flair but light on relevance outside privileged circles.

It is in this closed ideological loop that we wannabe masters of the universe often struggle to think clearly about the common good or what it takes to achieve it. Today’s MBA programs, insofar as they churn out graduates riveted to this worldview, limit the vision of future leaders at a time when public dissatisfaction with business and its institutions makes our complacency a danger.

I wonder what profession or sector would meet the standards Mr. Benjamin holds up? Do physicians routinely consider the global social implications of treating Patient A as opposed to Patient B? I know what an old boss of mine would say. “If I consider the global social implications, next quarter some other guy is going to be sitting in this chair who looks at the corporate earnings implications.”

My own criticism would be somewhat more basic and, in some ways, more realizeable. I’m not convinced that the strategies that would be effective for managing an automobile manufacturing company are the same as would be effective for an insurance company as would be the same for a software development company. IMO understanding the industry you’re working in is vital to making a good decision—decisions can’t be abstracted from circumstances.

The one area in which they can is finance and that’s why there’s a powerful temptation to turn every company into a financial holding company.

5 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    The first part of that link states: “American business schools market their ability to train the kinds of broadly competent, intellectually receptive people that will help solve the problems of a global economy.”

    Is this true? As someone who occupied the border between the liberal arts and business schools, I never had that sense and if anything b-school was often disinterested if not hostile to politics and macro-level considerations. (I notice the word “elite” thrown in there and maybe my school wasn’t elite; it is usually ranked in the top 50 b-schools and top five in accounting)

    I point that out because without that claim, the part that Dave has excerpted makes it sound like the author believes politics is about management and we’re getting led poorly because the leadership track is deficient due to deficiencies in b-schools. I don’t buy those assumptions. There are a lot of politicians with MBA degrees, particularly on the R-side, but I don’t think that reflects anything about B-school, so much as a safe college path for people with inherited wealth/ job opportunities.

  • My understanding is that the mission statement of business schools is to train qualified individuals to manage enterprises. That can be further subdivided into marketing, finance, and management.

    I’m hoping to draw out our resident MBA who I’m sure will be moved to comment.

    I would add that I think that much of the present dissatisfaction of the American people with our political leaders is that we think they’re taking too global a viewpoint. The job of representatives is to represent. The job of the executive is to administer the federal government and look after American interests abroad. That means that global citizenship is necessarily subordinated.

  • steve Link

    PD- Got invited to a Wharton party where I swear the speaker said almost exactly what you quoted. Of course the cleavage of the trophy wife next to me was distracting so I could have misheard.


  • Guarneri Link

    “I’m hoping to draw out our resident MBA who I’m sure will be moved to comment”

    I guess that’s me. I have to tell you, I think this guy missed by a country mile, and sounds like a crank. The notion that they do not think about broader societal issues or are a monoculture is simply something I’m not familiar with. It makes for good sniping, but grads are no different than other professions, (and the range of people one meets) except perhaps the priesthood.

    As Dave notes, the curriculum is designed to teach the full array of business toolkit skills: quantitative capability, finance, operations, marketing, organizational behavior and strategy. It’s similar to engineering. You may know how to lead or manage people without the formal education, but I doubt you will be effective in the treasury function or brand management.

    Loftier goals fall out of courses in leadership, entrepreneurship and ethics. Guys and gals who want to be bond traders don’t tend to take those. Aspiring GMs and CEOs do.

    As for understanding your company, it reminds me of a quip. Years ago Solomon Bros (basically a bond house) hired a guy, if memory serves, from Illinois Tool Works, prompting the waggish response from a Solomon guy, “I’ve always said what we need around here is a good tool and die man.”

    I think the days of ITT are long past. The GEs of the world may be conglomerates, but it’s not the standard model. (This issue has received a lot of academic study).

  • Guarneri Link

    BTW – as for “elite.” As the old saying goes, if a few years out of school you are still wearing your school affiliation on your sleeve, or feel the need to tell people how smart you are, there’s a problem. The questions are what have you done, what can you do and where are you going.

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