What’s Right with Business Schools?

Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has a compelling new commentary out this week on the state of business schools. She discusses evolving ideas about what a business school education should be about, including an influential book by Harvard professor Rakesh Khurana, in which the author laments the lack of a formal system of professional ethics similar to those found in graduate schools of medicine and law. Khurana argues that the elements of professional education he considers to be missing are responsible for an increase in white collar crime (aka “corporate malfeasance”).

Shaw also highlights the concerns of CEI’s own Fred L. Smith, whose very different perspective questions whether modern higher education curriculum is causing future business leaders to lose faith in capitalism itself. At a time when the fashion is for large corporations to adopt policies of “corporate social responsibility” that often have little to do with their core business functions, Fred wonders whether future business leaders are left with the impression that the central goal of satisfying consumer demand with new products and services has taken a back seat to promoting trendy social causes. This attitude seems to be increasingly common in both MBA and BA programs.

Recent graduate Matthew Tice, in a contribution to the Wall Street Journal editorial page earlier this year, chronicled the litany of irrelevant and actively anti-capitalist material that he was assigned during his years as an undergraduate finance major. As Tice points out, the continuous characterization of business professionals as polluting, sexist bad guys (and worse) can naturally be expected to take a toll on impressionable young minds.

For some business students, like me, the antibusiness bias of some courses serves as a distraction but doesn’t derail one’s career focus. For others, particularly undecided undergraduates, such messaging will become internalized and transmitted over time from the college campus to the working world, which is probably the long-term goal.

There is hope, though. In her Pope Center commentary, Shaw points out the work of another Harvard professor, Robert Simons, who has critiqued some of these trends and argued that business schools should re-focus on teaching competitiveness. We also know that there are many business schools who are teaching students to embrace their place in the business world without caveats or apologies. The Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business has been doing excellent work in this vein, and the recently re-named Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America here in Washington, D.C. has combined a rigorous business education with a moral and ethical focus that doesn’t denigrate the achievements of markets and capitalism.