The Chronicle has a challenging proposition: Business Schools Have No Business in the University. The author makes a good case, and I agree with him. Business schools are incoherent, have no consistent curriculum, and I suspect that even most of their graduates would agree that the skills to succeed in business are ones you learn in real world practice. The sole reasons they exist are to give rich people a certificate of intellectual accomplishment — a kind of Wizard of Oz game — and to give them a place to send their kids that aren’t too challenging and give them the pretense that they’re fit to step into Mom or Dad’s shoes. There’s no better example of this function than our president.
Unable to truly create a profession of business, business schools more often function as finishing schools for the new junior executive. The finishing-school role that business schools have always played can be summarized this way: Donald J. Trump went to Wharton.
Depending on your point of view you are either nodding your head in affirmation or crying out “cheap shot!” So let me hasten to say that it is entirely unfair to blame Wharton for Trump’s pathological narcissism or his gargantuan vulgarity. After all, Newt Gingrich received a Ph.D. in history, and I don’t want the historical profession to be blamed for him.
And yet Trump exemplifies exactly the kind of man for whom business school was invented. Deeply and transparently insecure, Trump has reminded his supporters over and over that he went to Wharton and that that means he’s really, bigly smart. Trump sees his Wharton education as giving him social status and intellectual credibility. At the turn of the 20th century, one function of the new business schools was to give the sons of the new industrial titans a respectable patina, to launder the wealth they had received from their fathers by scrubbing it with a college degree. And so it is for Trump.
But there are reasons to keep them around.
Money. Money money money money money. Money money.
The business school at the University of Chicago became the Booth Chicago School of Business after David Booth dropped a whopping $300 million to have his name emblazoned on the building, and that was in 2008, while the rest of the country was reeling.
To be fair, I think vocational programs should get more respect, and business school really is a kind of vocational certification program. I think the students would be of greater use to society if they learned welding, but we have to give them choices. It can’t hurt if a young man or woman graduates with some evidence that they’ve learned some of the skills needed to be a middle manager.
Capitalism must have its own metrics to institutionalize their practices, and maybe business schools, if they had the competence to do so, could act as bottleneck to regulate the proliferation of pointless management personnel. It would also be so sweet if they actually forced their graduates to learn some ethics. But now I’m wandering off into fantasy land.
Most of those reasons are hypothetical, though. As the article concludes, business schools are failures.
It is hard to shake the conclusion that business schools have largely failed — even on their own terms, much less on other, broader social ones. For all their bold talk about training tomorrow’s business leaders, as institutions they have largely been followers. “In reviewing the course of American business education over the past fifty years,” wrote one observer, “one is struck by its almost fad-like quality.” That was in 1957. Despite their repeated emphasis on innovation and “outside the box thinking” business schools exhibit a remarkable conformity and sameness. Don’t take my word for it. That Porter and McKibbin study from 1988 found “a distressing tendency for schools to avoid the risk of being different … A ‘cookie cutter mentality’ does not seem to be too strong a term to describe the situation we encountered in a number of schools.” Finally, while honest people can disagree over whether American business is better off for having business schools, they have provided scant evidence that they have done much to transform business into something more noble than mere money-making. Indeed, by the late 20th century, they stopped pretending they could.
Well, failures except for the money part. Let’s get more rich business people to dump big wads of cash on universities. It’s just too bad they too often earmark the money for useless business schools.