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Debate: Do we really need business schools?

Harvard Business School classroom. mleiboff/Flickr, CC BY

After every financial crisis, business schools find themselves accused of every evil – rising inequality, the oppression of women, environmental devastation. In the midst of all these criticisms, why should management schools be preserved?

Two recent books have provided a sour portrait of management schools: Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport and Martin Parker’s Shut Down the Business School. Professor Parker finds business schools “immoral”, “stupid”, “vulgar”, solely concerned with money, and where corporate social responsibility is used mainly as a marketing tool.

One could be surprised at the hypocrisy of the situation: Parker, a professor in two UK business schools for 20 years, attacks his colleagues and institutions without proposing a solution other than (and I quote) teaching the “communist views on hierarchy and decision-making” or “forms of micro-credit and mutualism”. He appears to have fallen asleep in the 1970s and, turning on his television in 2018, suddenly discovered the ecological crisis, the war in Syria and the rise of religious fundamentalism. Appalled, he accuses management schools. They’re certainly open to and deserving of a measure of criticism, and the academics who teach at such institutions are capable of seeing the path forward. At the same time, it’s not appropriate to accuse all business schools, irrespective of their level of quality, of the same faults. Further, we can all attest to the true value of business schools.

First, business schools have evolved considerably since their creation in France with ESCP in 1819 or Audencia in 1900, in the US with the Wharton School in 1881. The pedagogical content, the teaching methods, the modes of operation and the recruitment processes have been completely overhauled. In the 1950s, schools recruited mainly from wealthy families, with no real selection and with practical courses distilling a series of “recipes” without hindsight on practices. Conservatism is no longer the norm, with business schools driven by managerial innovation, international diversity, personal development and critical analysis. With the development of research in the 1990s, management schools have become venues for innovative creation in the field of management sciences and fantastic R&D reserves for firms and the economy as a whole.

The success of alumni

The success of business schools is deeply connected to that of their graduates, who must first thrive within the confines of academia and then grow and develop in their organisations, thus giving back to their environment. A proof of this quality is the rate of recruitment: many of our students find jobs even before they finish their studies. There are certainly examples of alumni who have had central roles in enterprises of oppression and domination. Yet in the vast majority of cases, business school alumni bring with them energy, respect for others, a thirst for discovery and the desire to contribute to their teams’ well-being. The students I meet daily convey the image of positive youth seeking to change the world and guided by a real moral concern.

The sociology of business schools has also changed through the years and is now a reflection of society at large. Schools have enriched themselves through a more diverse range of students, worldviews, forms of organisation and firms’ fundamental missions. For example, business schools no longer teach that the sole purpose of a private company is shareholder profit. In passing, to think that “finance is always bad” is to understand nothing about how the economy runs and how innovation and job creation are financed.

Management schools also convey the need for a critical look at our world, in particular, a respect for all, the importance of gender equality, the defence of the oppressed and the protection of the environment. They have also helped fund critical researchers (including Martin Parker) and departments with limited resources, and also encouraged teachers to pursue ethical teaching and research projects. For example, the Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative (PRME) was launched in 2007 by representatives of leading business schools and academic institutions to continue the development of responsible management education. Thus, business schools fund more and more research on corporate social responsibility, corruption, gender equality or ecological transition.

Venues of fulfilment

Finally, management schools are places of fulfilment, where every teacher has the possibility of helping educate young people who will one day change the world. As management-science educators, our goal is not to facilitate the domination of money-hungry crooks, but to help young minds develop critical examination skills, enabling them to fight for the common good within their respective companies. With this pedagogical project, management schools are undoubtedly absolutely necessary.

This article was originally published in French

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