The B-school boondoggle

A historian questions the role of and reasons for America’s business schools
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 1, 2019

Steve Conn is a professor of history at Miami University in Ohio

Do business schools fulfill their promises of developing innovative, outside-the-box thinkers? Do they help society by making better business leaders who will put people ahead of moneymaking? Steven Conn says they don’t and they never have. In his book, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools (Cornell University Press, 2019), Conn, a W.E. Smith professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, says business programs increasingly take precedence over liberal arts programs, often with state-of-the-art facilities and more resources. But when it comes to measuring results, Conn reveals a disappointing history of missed opportunities, unmet aspirations and education mistakes. “We may not quite believe in the disinterested search for truth the way our predecessors once did,” he says, “but we bristle at the idea that a university might promote profitmaking as a goal unto itself.”

You say teaching business techniques isn’t the real work of universities.

The modern university is a big tent, and lots of different things go on there. I was trying to express an attitude that many of us, primarily in the arts and sciences, have about the business school. There are lots of programs that teach specific skills: occupational therapy, dental hygiene and all of those things that are part of big universities.

It’s hard to defend any notion of public good, or civic duty, in what business schools teach. We all need a dental hygienist. We all need occupational therapists. And the business school seems to be the odd man out in the sense of which master is being served.

One of your criticisms is that these schools haven’t done much to transform business into something more noble than moneymaking.

I don’t think many people would disagree with me on that. Some of the sharpest critics of business schools over the past hundred years have consistently been people from inside business schools. They complain that they have not risen beyond mere moneymaking.

Certainly, the people who founded business schools really did believe that there was going to be something more noble, more ethical, more public-minded. That just hasn’t happened.

People complain about what constitutes a business education, while business leaders complain about the quality of business school graduates. That makes me wonder about the purpose of business school.

Exactly. There have evolved two primary purposes for business schools. The first, going all the way back to the world’s oldest business college—The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania—is the cultural cachet that comes with a college degree. You don’t actually need a degree in business to be a successful business person. But a college degree was a way for that first generation of robber barons to feel like they were just as good as lawyers, doctors, theologians and so forth. That is still largely true.

I had a discussion with a student who was angry about something I had written on this. He said college was expensive and he had to take out loans to go, so you’re damn right he wanted a high-paying job when he left.

And I told him that if a high-paying job and debt burden is why you’re in college, I have a better solution. Skip college altogether and become a certified welder. An 18-year-old kid with a welding certification can walk into a job earning anywhere from $75,000 to $90,000 per year because there are more jobs than there are welders to go around. So if that’s the only thing at stake here, then you should have become a welder.

What is the second purpose?

The second reason business schools exist—and they’ve evolved in this direction—is for networking. It’s the easiest, fastest way for corporations to do their hiring. The people that you meet in business schools are the ones who will be in your business network when you graduate. Jack Welch, who was the CEO of General Electric at the time, once addressed the MIT Sloan School of Management students and said, “Don’t bother to go to class. There’s nothing you’re going to learn in class. You just spend your time networking.”

For universities, business schools are cash cows, so there is no incentive for them to trim the sails on degree production.

Some years ago, David Taylor, the CEO of Procter & Gamble, came to Miami University to give a talk. He said, “I can take any one of you and teach you what you need to learn about working at Procter & Gamble in about six weeks. But I can’t teach you how to think. That’s what you really need to learn in college.”

Something everyone sees but doesn’t acknowledge is that business schools are a white, male-dominated world.

Yes, absolutely. When business schools began, they really wanted a business degree to be kind of equivalent to a law degree and a medical degree.

Law schools and medical schools have worked pretty hard to achieve at least gender equity in their incoming classes, which are about 50-50.

The racial aspect is more complicated because the way we quantify it has changed over the years, and it’s not quite the same 50-50.

Business schools, for whatever reason, have always lagged behind. I don’t know whether this is on the front end, where female students feel like these are inhospitable places to begin with, or it’s on the back end, where corporations are not hiring women. Why go to a place if you know you’re not going to get hired at the end?

James Baugham, formerly of Harvard Business School’s faculty, said B-schools produce far more graduates than businesses can employ. He said that in 1984, and it doesn’t seem that much has changed.
That’s right. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the situation has gotten worse because many new business schools have opened since 1984.

For universities, business schools are cash cows, so there is no incentive for them to trim the sails on degree production. People seem eager and willing to enroll in these programs—and pay the price.

If you had your way, would business schools exist apart from universities?

That’s an interesting question. Studying American business is important, and it ought to be a big and vibrant part of what universities teach and what their faculty research.

But for me, it goes back to the question you first raised: What’s the point of this? Do we teach these things to be of service to the private sector or to be analytic about the private sector?

That’s what students in a business school ought to study, and I can promise you that they don’t. We ought to be researching and teaching about American business, but I’m not sure that we should be researching and teaching for American business. That’s not the job of a university.

Tim Goral is senior editor.