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Politics & Current Affairs

Are Business Schools Breeding Evil Monsters?

Feeling down about your employment prospects? Don’t. It’s just as bad over at Harvard Business School.

As of late April, only 81% of graduating students from the Harvard Business School had received job offers, and only 71% of those had accepted. This is a decrease from the same time last year when 92% of students had offers and 82% had accepted. More than a few media outlets, including the New York Times, have reported on the woes of graduating MBAs and noted that because nearly half of last year’s graduates went into financial services, these numbers are not hugely surprising. Nevertheless, it is disconcerting for anyone looking for a job when so many Harvard MBA’s are having a tough time as well.

Perhaps linked to this – perhaps not – is the hypothesis that some employers have recently started questioning the value of an M.B.A. degree – and the fact that many in the media have spent time reporting on those individuals and institutions which might be to blame for the economic catastrophe. As one example, The Wall Street Journal recently published Michael Jacobs’ article, “How Business Schools Have Failed Business,” where he wrote:

By failing to teach the principles of corporate governance, our business schools have failed our students…. Most B-schools paper over the topic by requiring first-year students to take a compulsory ethics class, which is necessary, but not sufficient. Would Bernie Madoff have acted differently if he had aced his ethics final? Could we have avoided most of the economic problems we now face if we had a generation of business leaders who were trained in designing compensation systems that promote long-term value?

While I was encouraged that Jacobs’ article asked tough questions, as a graduating MBA I saw Jacobs’ view as misguided on a couple of fronts. First, he states that business school students are not taught the principles of ethics. While we might debate if ethics can be taught effectively in the classroom – versus through family or religion – throughout my education at HBS, ethics was constantly incorporated into my framework of thinking and the classroom discussion, whether in a course on marketing, finance, or ethics itself. Moreover, I took an entire course on Leadership and Corporate Accountability and another entire course on Corporate Governance. I was challenged to think deeply about how to design systems that promote responsible behavior.

Most of all, however, I am taken aback that Jacobs points the finger at an entire group of individuals, business school students and the larger business school community. I am of the firm belief that while institutions can have a hand at molding individuals – their ethics, judgment – individuals are accountable for their own actions.

As just one example of this, consider four people from HBS class of 1979. Jeff Skilling was responsible for the disaster at Enron. Meg Whitman built eBay into an enormously successful company and is now running for public office. John Thain developed taste for very fine office furniture. Elaine Chow served admirably as the Secretary of Labor. There are hundreds of other examples from this single class and I would venture to guess that the vast majority had a positive influence on the people, businesses, and community around them. But in thinking of these very few public negative examples, it is impossible to prove, and disingenuous to suggest, that their business school education was the decisive gap where they failed to develop sound ethical judgment.

Can ethical thinking and judgment be improved upon? Of course. But as a larger community we should strive to incorporate it in every learning environment, workplace and school alike – and not just single out business schools.


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