“Business schools ignore certain essential realities”

JAfter the last financial crisis, a crowd of people were eager to write in the press about how business schools The Anglo-Saxons were guilty. Many institutions were involved, and these schools were not solely responsible, but many people felt that they laid the foundation for a particularly destructive relationship with money: they taught greed.

The criticism against them did not arise after the financial crisis. Even before that, their opponents were not lacking. They criticized them for following programs that were too academic and divorced from the reality of management, or for encouraging only short-term thinking and selfishness.

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It is also often pointed out that several key people involved in the 2008 crash, as well as in previous financial bankruptcies such as Enron and WorldCom, had MBAs from major business schools. However, the moral of the story is not very clear. Does having an MBA not prevent a person from engaging in risky or shady practices? Or does it encourage this practice?

It seems absurd to me to blame a particular institution for a crisis that is clearly systemic. Having said that, the business schools deserves special attention. In my book Close the Business School (“Shut down the business schools”, Pluto Press, 2018, untranslated), I write that these are places that produce and spread dangerous ideas about organizations and economics. These are institutions that defend a certain way of thinking about economics and that put financing and executive reward systems at the center.

However, they tend to ignore many other issues – carbon emissions, inequality, fairness and social cohesion – which are essential if tomorrow’s economies are not to repeat yesterday’s mistakes. There are many measures that must be taken to avoid another crisis.

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Many business school teachers see in this situation a kind of crisis of legitimacy, a questioning of established authority. And they express remorse full of sorrow that often provokes deep reflection in them. So is this what we’ve been doing our whole career? Have all our youthful hopes been betrayed? Many of these observations have one thing in common: the idea that the promises of the past have not been kept.

There are different opinions about the golden age of these schools. For some, the golden age began with the founding of the Wharton School in Pennsylvania in 1881. Back then, Republican paternalism led to the establishment of the first American trade schools as places to teach character and engineering.

The responsibility to educate those who might one day hold the reins of power figured prominently in speeches by the early benefactors and leaders of these schools. One often notices, especially in the United States, a willingness to educate morally. The business school was seen as a kind of moral weapon against the corruption and greed that characterized the unbridled capitalism of the early twentieth century.e century. So yes, maybe business schools were once a force for good, but what about today?

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According to Rakesh Khurana and Ellen O’Connor, who teach at a business school and have devoted impressive works to the history of this institution, professionalism, morality and civic values ​​were an integral part of the education of the first American schools, but these “higher purposes” has been distorted, and today these institutions work primarily to produce an obedient workforce in the service of big business.

The Business School saw itself as a neutral space in the service of the social good, as a university that would produce the writers for the next New offers.

Mie Augier and James March give us a slightly different view in the book they appropriated business schools in the second half of the 20th century.e century (The Roots, Rituals, and Rhetoric of Change: North American Business Schools After World War II, Stanford Business Books, 2011). In 1959, a report followed criticism of the quality of research and teaching in American schools – which some accused of being “vocational training deserts” – sparked concerted attempts to bring executive education into the space age.

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The result: a school project where science and decision-making models take precedence, and the firm belief that society and organizations can be governed by technocrats and technology. An attempt was thus made to apply the rigor of the hard sciences to public policy. The business school saw itself as a neutral space serving the common social good, as a university that would produce the writers for the next New offersarmed with computers and a solid knowledge of the laws that govern human behavior in groups.

There are common ideas in all of this. The first is that the business school is a place that defines a certain class of people, managers, by equipping them with a kind of language and knowledge. The business school in a gatekeeper role determines who is part of the leaders and produces the knowledge required to be so. In this sense, the “technocratic” period of the American business school is based on an intensified form of “managerialism”; but during this period the institution justified its existence with science rather than morality.

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But whatever the exact time of its heyday, the diagnosis of its decline from the 1970s is largely the same. For Mie Augier and James March, the counterculture of the 1960s laid the foundation for the “triumph of the self” that began in the following decade—a term that in their writing seems to mean “the triumph of egoism.” Thinking about collective action has begun to decline, as has the serious research needed to make smart collective choices. Behind all this, of course, was the rise of finance and the flows of money and algorithms that made buying and selling companies and capital a more lucrative business than actually making anything. Finance overtook morality, and business schools have become nothing more than a kind of boarding school for young people in the service of capitalism.

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Translated from English by Valentine Morizot

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