Inside the strange, uniform politics of today’s MBA programs—and what it says about America’s elites

By JOHN BENJAMIN  (Shared with permission of author)
May 14, 2018

Students in the country’s top MBA programs pride themselves on their open-mindedness. This is, after all, what they’ve been sold: American business schools market their ability to train the kinds of broadly competent, intellectually receptive people that will help solve the problems of a global economy.

But in truth, MBA programs are not the open forums advertised in admissions brochures. Behind this façade, they are ideological institutions committed to a strict blend of social liberalism and economic conservatism. Though this fusion may be the favorite of American elites—the kinds of people who might repeat that tired line “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative”—it takes a strange form in business school. Elite business schooling is tailored to

promote two types of solutions to the big problems that arise in society: either greater innovation or freer markets. Proposals other than what’s essentially more business are brushed aside, or else patched over with a type of liberal politics that’s heavy on rhetorical flair but light on relevance outside privileged circles.

It is in this closed ideological loop that we wannabe masters of the universe often struggle to think clearly about the common good or what it takes to achieve it. Today’s MBA programs, insofar as they churn out graduates riveted to this worldview, limit the vision of future leaders at a time when public dissatisfaction with business and its institutions makes our complacency a danger.

Read the full text of the article here.

This article, written by John Benjamin, was originally shared on The New Republic website on May 14, 2018.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Terry Nelidov says:

    Ouch! … and double-ouch!! … because it’s written by a recent MBA grad himself.

    But should we in the Erb community beat ourselves up over what’s happening in the rest of the MBA world? After all, we’re trying our best to do exactly what Benjamin advocates through our MBA / MS degree, plus sustainability research and business engagement! Or is that enough?

    We have limited time and resources as an institute, and as a global community. Should we focus on drilling down to make the MBA / MS experience better, deeper, richer and more transformative every day for our nearly 100 students, or should we be taking some of those resources and investing them in moving the needle on sustainability within the MBA itself — for the other 700 MBA students in the building? And, if so, that’s a tough nut to crack! Where would we begin?

    This is a real-time discussion we’re having at the institute — one which you can help us think through!

  • S.B. (2012) says:

    Caution: strong, and perhaps counter to conventional Erb thinking, opinions ahead.

    ——

    To some extent, this guy is doing the equivalent of signing up for chemistry grad school and then complaining that students aren’t reading enough Plato. I think he might have picked the wrong school for what he was seeking—it sounds like he would have been happier in a public policy program.

    Places like Erb are great, because they enable people who want to get training in specific areas of business to get it. That’s why I chose it. I don’t think trying to jam more of those conversations into the traditional business school curriculum, which hardly has that time to fit in basic business skills, is the right way to move the needle on social/economic issues. As a society, we already have a much more efficient mechanism, government, to address many of the issues discussed in his article. That, as a society, we choose not to make those changes is a pox on us, but I don’t think the right answer is finger wagging at HBS for its professors not doing enough to shove a specific set of left-leaning policy agendas down its students throats. I might agree with the policies, but I down think b-school is the right vehicle to deliver them.

    I’ve lots more thought on this, but I’ll leave it here for now.

  • Andy Hoffman says:

    Andy Hoffman – Erb Institute Faculty
    I think the TNR author is arguing for recognition of the underlying values that permeate the MBA curriculum and calling for a shift towards values with more integrity and responsibility. Just some of the issues in the present curriculum that he lists include: the notion that the market can solve all problems; the overriding belief that profit maximization to the exclusion of all else is the paramount business objective; that there is little, if any, examination of the moral aspects of the economy as it is presently structured, and could be restructured; and the extent to which the present economy burdens people through inflation and debt and keeps them from progressing economically.

    Some issues he lists as missing include: the need for business to work together with the environment to maintain its sustainability; and the fairness of women being paid as much as men and being represented as much as men at the upper echelons. Finally, he argues that much of “social responsibility” in the curriculum is merely a thin veneer to cover over these other issues. And he makes a fair point that liberal voices (as measured in students and faculty) vastly outweigh conservative voices (check out this article from the National Academies for a sobering view on this issue). But I think a deeper point he is raising is that there is no acknowledgement or examination of the underlying values that guide the MBA curriculum and that there are other values that could be developed. We would do well to make those transparent.

    I agree that regulatory policy is critical to address many of these issues and we need to bring more policy into the business curriculum. But I don’t think that takes business executives off the hook. For example, I do not think that, absent regulation, business executives should take advantage of women by paying them less and reinforcing the glass ceiling. We should be training leaders who will help make business a more honorable career path, filled with integrity and an awareness of the broader implications of business that go beyond the lowest common denominator of no holds barred capitalism.

    In many ways, the Erb program, with its three year curriculum, is an attempt to bring some of these issues into a student’s degree. And we have long worked to bring more of this content into the core MBA curriculum. There is no reason why that curriculum needs to stay as it is, and has been for decades.

    I might also assert that there is room to add to new material in a revamped curriculum. There is certainly some fat that could be cut from the curriculum and associated social activities, and not all of this content needs to be added as a full course. There are all kinds of innovative ways to deliver content being devised. In the end, all that is needed is a will to make change and some thoughtful effort at redesign. Alas, there are few incentives for faculty to undertake such a project.

  • JB says:

    Hi all, I really appreciate the thoughtful comments and want to try to clarify one or two things.

    First, I agree completely with Andrew’s take above. The goal isn’t much more ambitious than to ventilate some important ideas. Despite what many believe, MBA programs today are ideological. Institutions, like individuals, can be enthralled to an ideology while still claiming to be pragmatic; often people embrace a worldview they may not know they have.

    It’s not asking a lot to push these programs to challenge budding leaders and leave them with a deeper sense of what business is actually for. Unlike what S.B. says, many MBA programs are not academically rigorous: that’s sort of the open secret, in case you haven’t caught wind of it. There are plenty of reasons to expect a little more. You can be a great manager or entrepreneur or investor and still take seriously your place in the broader economy. The two aren’t mutually exclusive (in fact, they’ll complement each other).

    Also, to S.B.: Thanks for the advice on picking a subject to study, but the idea that business is like chemistry and all this ethics-morals talk is fluff for liberal arts majors is precisely the problem we’re trying to confront head on. We need to get beyond the idea that business is just about optimization. MBA programs today are awash with physics envy: we think choices can always be reduced to numbers and therefore seen as morally neutral. But business is a sociological enterprise — it’s about people.

    Finally, to Terry: I’m skeptical of any opt-in curriculum. I think it suffers from selection bias, as the students who need the lessons most will be the least likely to engage with them. Maybe you have other ideas… I’m all ears.

    Thanks for the comments, all.

  • S.B. says:

    Appreciate the good dialogue and back again with a few other thoughts.

    First, I just want to clarify that I don’t believe that our economy, or the firms within it, are structured in a right, just, or sustainable way. We have bad outcomes on many dimensions that are directly attributable to that very structure and we should work to change it.

    Inasmuch as this is a forum specifically dedicated to business schools and sustainability, I suppose this is as good a place as any to have a conversation about what business schools can do to help address those problems. That said, I’m not convinced that driving training on these issues into business schools (writ large) is likely to move the needle in a way that justifies the lift involved.

    I’m reminded of a formative experience I had early in my career at Erb. We distributed shiny new Michigan branded reusable water bottles to everyone in the class to be used at the water fountains in the, then new, building. I thought to myself, “this is great!” Boy, was I wrong. Most of those bottles ended up lost or in the trash well before they reached the very high number of paper (or even plastic) cups that would need to have been diverted to justify production of the reusable bottles. It was a nice effort on our part, but we actually left the world worse off than it would have been otherwise. I’ve seen that same story play our over-and-over with slightly different themes. In the end, we end up with things like composting in the ExxonMobil cafeteria–actions that feel good, but don’t really move the needle.

    I’ve seen very little, if any, evidence that the sort of training proposed is effective at changing behaviors, and my anecdotal experiences seem to suggest the same conclusion. I’m frustrated because I think there is so much good to be done, but impact is diluted because we don’t spend enough time talking about what efforts actually achieve the best ROI. As a community, I believe we need a set of clear goals and a definable strategy based on facts, rather than feelings. We spend too much of our collective energy and resources chasing projects that feel good, but do nothing to help us achieve our goals.

    If anyone can provide analysis showing that the benefits of the proposed changes exceed the costs (including opportunity costs), I’m all ears. Until then, I can’t support it, because I think there are better areas for us to focus our time and energy.

  • S.B. says:

    I’d also like to point out that I believe the author misplaces the point at which businesses go wrong. Incidentally, I’m still not entirely confident that I understand the issue after nearly six years consulting for large corporations and as the CEO of a mid-sized private impact-focused business, but I know a heck of a lot more than I did when I was in school.

    What I’ve seen in the upper reaches of a number of large corporations as a consultant was many business leaders contemplating the impacts of the work that they did and the decisions that they make, but being pulled in so many different directions that the most basic incentives ultimately win. Until you’ve sat in the chair and had to make these decisions, I’m not sure you can appreciate how difficult it is. Now, as a CEO I could do lots of things to be more carbon neutral, but if I don’t hit my debt covenants we’re going in default and I’m going to have to lay off those very people that I’m trying to help.

    Ultimately, people and institutions respond to incentives and if you give them the wrong incentives they will do bad things–not because they are bad people, but because they have bad incentives. I think we can draw an interesting parallel between business and academia, which is dealing with its own issues around reproducibility in scientific research. A number of studies have found that a significant amount of research can not be replicated by peers and it’s likely (per the scientific community itself) that a significant portion of that can be attributable to selective reporting and even fraud. These are scientists have dedicated their lives to advancing their field of study and are not likely bad people. Is it because they didn’t get enough ethics training or talk about scientific misconduct in their graduate programs? I would contend not. It’s because if they don’t get publishable results, they won’t be able to feed their children. It’s the same type of decision making problems that business faces, if you want to fix the problem you have to fix the incentives.

    I’ll grant you that I can draw a line in my mind from better MBA training to more ethical business decision making (though, despite spending 15 minutes searching, I could find no peer reviewed evidence that ethics training is effective beyond a paper written in 1992 with a statistically insignificant sample-size). I still believe that if we were drawing up an evidence-based strategy for how to get change in business decision making, MBA curriculum changes would fall in the bottom left corner on the 2×2 matrix of achievability and impactfulness. I don’t have all the answers on what would be in the top-right, but I think it would be things like public awareness campaigns, lobbying for new regulations, investing in campaigns of candidates that favor those policies, and supporting watchdog groups that help enforce existing regulations. If we want to achieve meaningful change, we need a targeted effort focused on high ROI activities. That is something, incidentally, that MBA graduates are uniquely well positioned to define!

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