In Defense of the MBA

Recent critics of the MBA are quick to point out the MBA’s shortcomings. Nonetheless, the real problem with business education may not be a lack of relevance, but a lack of recognition for what it’s getting right.
In Defense of the MBA

Like most management educators, we’re passionate about business school education. But lately we’ve been faced with one article after another by esteemed colleagues who question the relevance of the MBA. First, it was Henry Mintzberg. Then, it was Sumantra Ghoshal. Then, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina Fong. And now a new round of writers has published articles critical of the MBA. It’s difficult to read these articles without suffering an overdose of academic and market idealism.

In “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” published in the May 2005 Harvard Business Review, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles criticize business schools for being too narrowly focused on scientific research. In “What’s Really Wrong with U.S. Business Schools?,” Harry and Linda DeAngelo of USC and Jerold Zimmerman of the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business Administration in New York fault business schools for allocating too many resources to improve their rankings. The authors argue for fundamental changes in the rankings process and an overhaul of faculty hiring and tenure systems. These articles are thoughtful, well-reasoned pieces—but some of the solutions they offer may be unrealistic.

These authors forget that the majority of management education is not occurring at schools that rank in BusinessWeek’s top 30. The majority of management education does not occur at the MBA level. It occurs at the undergraduate level at a wide variety of institutions. In such a broad setting, we need to balance a range of conflicting interests. We need to bring about strategic change without committing political or financial suicide.

Those of us who know the issues, and who live with them every day, understand the shortcomings of management education that these authors address. Still, as leaders who operate b-schools in the trenches, we know that many of their solutions are impractical. We also know that the MBA and business education have never been stronger or more innovative than they are now, due to curricular revisions at business schools around the world. The question is: How can we continue this trend? How can we make improvements and implement change most effectively as academic leaders— here, in the real world?

The Rankings Reality

Just as a CEO must create shareholder value, business school leaders are obligated to protect and enhance the quality and prestige of their schools to benefit their students, alumni, faculty, staff, corporate partners, and society at large. Performing this duty—and performing it well—requires genuine concern for the institution and its long-term well-being.

When the DeAngelos and Zimmerman characterize deans as driven by self-serving, short-sighted rankings myopia, they simply miss the mark. Like it or not, management education is a business, driven by market forces. Like it or not, we live in a world where consumers want and purchase school rankings, which is why the rankings have flourished. Like it or not, the rankings are a fundamental part of a school’s reputation. They influence a school’s capacity to attract top faculty, who in turn produce great research and provide excellent teaching.

Yes, we could lean on top officials at the publications that sponsor rankings to persuade them to reconsider their criteria and methodology. We could beseech one another and the public to realize the nonsensical nature of using the rankings to judge a school’s true benefit to its students and to the world. We could do so, but the impact of our efforts would be minimal. As long as there is market demand and money to be made for publications in the rankings, it’s a fight we cannot win.

The Truth About Research

Bennis and O’Toole assert that the true problem with business schools lies not in the rankings, but in the scientific model business schools have adopted for their research. By relying solely on this model, they argue, business schools cater to the egos and research interests of faculty. In the process, they fail to teach future business leaders how to make good management decisions.

All the authors, including the DeAngelos and Zimmerman, call for striking a balance between scientific and real-world teaching and research. Bennis and O’Toole state that, “In practice, business schools need a diverse faculty populated with professors who collectively hold a variety of skills and interests that cover territory as broad and deep as business itself.” The DeAngelos and Zimmerman believe that “schools must therefore strike a balance between excessive vocationalism, on the one extreme, and pure science on the other.”

Their arguments are reasonable; but, at many schools, their proposed solutions are unnecessary. In fact, many business schools are doing exactly what these authors suggest and have been doing so for years. For example, in the 1990s, the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor, now the Ross School of Business, implemented two curricular enhancements—the Executive Skills Program and the Multidisciplinary Action Program (MAP). Both programs provided students with an exceptional dose of hands-on, interactive learning and leadership skills development.

This approach complemented the conceptual frameworks provided by Michigan’s research-oriented faculty in the classroom. To implement these programs, school leaders focused not on rankings, but on relevance and excellence in business education, and on the need to effectively blend theory and practice.

The Real Problem

The fact that Michigan jumped four places, to No. 2 from No. 6, in the 1996 BusinessWeek rankings should not be held up as evidence of a rankings obsession. Rather, the improvement was the result of the University of Michigan’s curricular changes and its attention to relevant research and teaching.

There are certainly other examples of business schools that have made positive changes, not as a rankings ploy, but as a way to better serve students, faculty, and recruiters. Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for instance, developed a paradigm-breaking MBA curriculum in the 1990s. It was one of the few schools that started with a blank sheet of paper and developed a modular curriculum that consisted of academic “streams” that emphasized integrative, cross-disciplinary learning. The intent of the new curriculum was to provide students with the perspective and cross-functional skills necessary for success as business leaders. More recently, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, implemented a major leadership initiative, as well as a series of ethical workshops that are a required part of the curriculum. At Villanova University’s College of Commerce and Finance in Pennsylvania, a strong foundation of liberal arts, ethics, and international management is required within its undergraduate business program.

In the flurry of discussion about the problem with the MBA—or the problem with business schools in general—the current and widespread efforts of business schools to improve their programs often aren’t recognized. Their remarkable successes in the field are somehow lost in the debate.

At these and many other schools, change is being implemented with the heavy involvement of leading research faculty. Among their ranks, we can find a breadth and depth of experience, valuable insights, corporate connections, and genuine concern for their students’ education. The business school industry does tremendous disservice to itself when it focuses so heavily on the irrelevance of research-driven faculty or the myopic vision of deans.

The real problem we are facing is that too much of today’s criticism of business education is narrowly focused and lacks a larger strategic view. In the flurry of discussion about the problem with the MBA—or the problem with business schools in general—the current and widespread efforts of business schools to improve their programs often aren’t recognized. Their remarkable successes in the field are somehow lost in the debate.

While it’s beneficial to bring ideas and criticisms to the fore, the hands-on business of running a school is a delicate balancing act carried out on politically treacherous terrain. School leaders are often women and men who don’t have the protection of tenure and who operate at business schools that aren’t ranked in the top 30. We need to focus on practical change from the b-school leadership perspective and on collaboration to refine and implement strategies for success.

Rolling Up Our Sleeves

If theoretical solutions won’t help us improve and revise management education, what will? When it comes to implementing change, it’s not “all about ideas.” It’s about rolling up our sleeves and putting practical strategies in action.

Earlier this year, we published an article in MBA Innovation, “Practicing What They Preach: Business School Strategies for Success.” In researching this article, we interviewed six former deans to learn more about their approaches to business school leadership over decades of service. We spoke with Gil Whitaker, former dean of the Jones School at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the University of Michigan Business School; B. Joseph White, former dean of the University of Michigan Business School; Thomas Keller and Rex Adams, former deans of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; Donald Jacobs, former dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; and Meyer Feldberg, former dean of the Columbia University Business School in New York City.

As we listened to their insights, several common elements emerged in the strategies they had employed to improve their schools’ reputations. They emphasized faculty excellence, research quality, corporate connections, student selectivity and satisfaction, and fund raising and development. They all stayed focused, avoiding the temptation to take on superfluous initiatives or flashy projects that did not align with the school’s strategy. They all generated support by building genuine, one-on-one relationships with stakeholders.

Such well-balanced strategies succeed in creating change that works in a real-world business school to enhance its programs. In addition, they generate positive changes to relevant and practical management education, in the areas that really matter:

Faculty appreciation. Deans must conduct one-on-one conversations with their faculty to understand each faculty member’s goals. Through this attention, deans can nourish a collaborative environment where these goals are respected, met, and maximized to the school’s benefit. Deans also must be tough enough to deal with faculty who bring negligible overall benefit to the school.

Many deans already understand this reality. They know that a well-balanced strategy highlights both teaching and research; it does not penalize faculty who are wellsprings for publishing applied research, but who do not generate articles for scholarly journals. They understand that faculty who work on extremely creative scholarly research that a number of practitioners may deem “useless” should not be criticized, but valued in their efforts to bring new knowledge to the practice. And they realize that faculty who are stars with students because of their outstanding communication, teaching, and advising are also a valuable part of the b-school equation. Not only do these faculty members serve student stakeholders well, but they ease the administrative burdens of those faculty who would rather do research than teach.

Student integrity. Much of the criticism directed atMBA education in recent years may be far more closely related to bschool admissions practices than to misguided approaches to research or rankings. It is our duty to corporations and society overall to recognize true talent, potential, and character in the students we admit. It is our duty to recruit them from every rung on the socioeconomic ladder. If students do not exhibit potential and integrity, we should not admit them in the first place. Recruiters want a diverse pool of talented graduates with character and integrity—it’s our job to deliver.

Our business programs aren’t perfect, but we must strive to make improvements that work for our real-world situations, not a theoretical ideal.

Student satisfaction. Teaching quality, relevant coursework, and career development, of course, are crucial to student satisfaction. Even so, students base their satisfaction much more on their overall experience during their time in business school than they do on how well its research is received or how a certain practitioner taught a particular course. Customer service staff, facilities, food, and other comfort-related commodities are just as fundamental to the educational experience as our great ideas, creative curricula, and business knowledge.

To us, student services may seem far less important than high-level research—but they are very important to our customers. All business programs should have a centralized office dedicated to student services, one that enables students to have a “one-stop shopping” resource to meet their needs. In addition, deans should conduct annual surveys and longitudinal analyses to help to ensure the continued improvement and quality of their students’ experiences.

Alumni, fundraising, development—and the rankings. Alumni represent the cornerstone of a business school. Their loyalty and support make or break its success. Yes, many of them want to see their school do well in the rankings; at the same time, they don’t want a school to “sell out” on the qualities that make it unique. Striking that balance is a challenge. The bottom line: If a school’s stakeholders believe that rankings performance is out of reach or unimportant to the school’s mission, let it go. If stakeholders want the school to realize an improvement in its reputation, drive the school’s rankings performance as aggressively as possible while maintaining the school’s core character.

Once they know what their stakeholders want, schools can choose whether or not to make changes that will influence their rankings. Then, they can decide whether these changes are ultimately beneficial or detrimental to stakeholders and their programs. If stakeholders want to pursue an improved rankings status, then business school deans and faculty need to learn to play ball.

Moving Forward

So, what’s wrong with the MBA? Not nearly so much as many in the industry would have us think. Our business programs aren’t perfect, but we must strive to make improvements that work for our real-world situations, not a theoretical ideal.

We’re in the business of academia, but we also must realistically consider the range of business schools in the world. Most of them are contributing to the practice of management by providing the best quality education they can to the markets they serve. We must value faculty members who have devoted their lives to research in a given area, those who have devoted their lives to classroom teaching, and those who have done both. We must value students who, for the most part, don’t live in academe, but who care about their education from a consumer-driven, return-on-investment perspective. We must value corporate recruiters, who want to hire a diverse group of people with integrity and talent. And we must value alumni, who want to strengthen their school’s programs and improve its reputation.

As we tackle the challenges that face our industry, we must remember that getting on any bandwagon—pro- or anti-research, or pro- or anti-rankings—is dangerous. We must be careful of how we react to the pressures generated by the media or the spate of recent articles lamenting the state of business education. As business school leaders, we have a responsibility to determine what changes are needed at each of our schools based on the needs of our stakeholders. Only then can we implement constructive changes that make sense.

James Danko is the dean of the College of Commerce and Finance at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Bethanie Anderson is the college’s director of strategic initiatives.