April 17, 2011

B-School Mission Drift

Here's a fascinating investigative piece in the NYT (with several related pieces in the Chronicle) on the lack of rigor in most undergraduate business programs, i.e., outside the top 50
"Paul M. Mason does not give his business students the same exams he gave 10 or 15 years ago. “Not many of them would pass,” he says. 
Dr. Mason, who teaches economics at the University of North Florida, believes his students are just as intelligent as they’ve always been. But many of them don’t read their textbooks, or do much of anything else that their parents would have called studying. “We used to complain that K-12 schools didn’t hold students to high standards,” he says with a sigh. “And here we are doing the same thing ourselves.” 
That might sound like a kids-these-days lament, but all evidence suggests that student disengagement is at its worst in Dr. Mason’s domain: undergraduate business education. 
Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major. 
This is not a small corner of academe. The family of majors under the business umbrella — including finance, accounting, marketing, management and “general business” — accounts for just over 20 percent, or more than 325,000, of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, making it the most popular field of study."
The piece goes on to suggest ways to counteract this downward trend in business school rigor, based on some of the most admired programs. The upshot is there should be more of an emphasis on writing and rigor, particularly in core liberal liberal arts areas such as history, political science and philosophy. 

As I have myself argued in the Chronicle, Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill University, claims the mission of business school should be "to educate people, not to give them a lot of functional business stuff.” He says it's a “travesty” to offer vocational fields like finance or marketing to 18-year-olds. Instead, he supports a humanistic, multidisciplinary model of management education.

I would add, that the rather hollow vocational mission of traditional business degree programs contributes to student disengagement with their education. Bringing philosophy into such programs, starting with required stand-alone courses in business and society and professional ethics, can be an excellent start. But these courses should be taught by professors with the appropriate philosophical degrees. This means more business schools need to follow the example of their more highly-regarded counterparts  such as Babson, which counts numerous liberal arts professors among its faculty.http://www.businessadministrationdegree.net/


  1. "It is by not believing people that we turn them into liars."

    The above cited article roughly correlates with my own anecdotal experience - kids today are less curious, more cynical, far less idealistic, even as they are more participatory.

    As the NYT article notes, even in its headline, "Business" is the "default major", much as perhaps "Sosh" (sociology) was in the late 60s and early 70s. Of course, back then, in the age of "full employment" (at least, comparitively) one could major in Anthro, join the Peace Corps for a year or two, "travel" and come back and engage in "plastics" - and come from the lower middle class. Whereverthehell State U cost $1800/term, including room and board. Few teachers were Education majors, except perhaps in the primary grades. Many HS teachers were people who took cool things in college - Art History, Medieval German Lit, Linguistics. They may have been total jerks, but they at least studied something interesting. Sometimes they shared it with us.

    Again, beginning with the twin "energy crises", the role of college changed from preparing "well rounded" people (or draft dodgers) to being the post HS vocational school. People took majors they thought would lead to jobs. Computer science was hip. Going to Law and Med became more than the province of the elites and the people with a cause - it became the ticket to that 6 figure job.

    Everything is later now... When my older children were young, I considered adulthood to start at 25. I have since revised that up to 30. More and more it's looking like 35, or even 40.

    Same with school - HS was meant to produce people ready to take on adult responsibilities when I was 10. By the time I was 30, college played that role. Now it's grad or professional schools.

    So if you're a kid, going to college, you expect from it what we expected from HS - an obligatory way station on the road to adulthood, meant for socializing, partying, youthanalia. Who graduates with a job offer?

    Chem majors don't get jobs as chemists. Engineering majors don't get jobs as engineers. French majors, like my wife, don't get jobs that involve their majors.

    They all get jobs in financial services, like my wife. She tagged a job in 77 as a gofer - a sub-secretary - in a financial firm. Some guy comes down and says, HR says you have a background in foreign languages. She says, yeah, I was a French major. OK, the guy says, you'll do. She got a job working with a German guy in the Eurobond market - but 30+ years later, never used her academic background. Never used French.

    So why NOT have a default major? Why NOT have it be Business? Does it matter?

  2. Well that might not be as much of a problem if it were a more balanced default. There should be more liberal arts in business. Or make it like pre-law and pre-med. Nearly every U.S. state now requires the equivalent of a graduate degree for accounting licensure anyway. Perhaps we should do the same for financial brokers.

  3. This is a great post. Most of the students who undertakes business programs have some prior experience on the field perhaps this is the reason they don't study much. But it is a wrong practice they should study.

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