“How can you work in a business school?” The question was put to me by a professor of politics. Her own background was at an elite U.S. art college, and we shared similar political and intellectual persuasions. “The stereotype of someone working in a business school is of one who serves the 1%,” she told me.
She’s right, of course. Business schools are not perceived as intellectual hotbeds, and even less crucibles of critical and progressive thinking. They are often portrayed as universities’ cash cows. As my colleague said, they can also play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, a focus on shareholder maximisation, and economic short-termism.
In 2005, management guru Sumantra Ghoshal denounced business schools for perpetuating “the worst excesses” of management practices. Six years later, Mie Augier and James March criticised U.S. business schools for forwarding “personal income, corporate profit or shareholder value as the highest social virtue for management.” It has even been suggested that business schools should be considered “academies of the apocalypse” for their role in the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite the fact that societies are becoming ever more unequal, business schools continue to perpetuate and even glorify the immoral and risky behaviours that help to generate such inequality.
The fact that a businessman, armed with “post-truth” reasoning and mired by controversial business practices, has become president-elect of the U.S. shows how dominant such values have become.
In the public interest
The debate about the “business of business schools” continues to rage in academic journals, but little of substance has changed.
There has been a positive development in management education, in the form of more business ethics teaching. But, as Judith Samuelson of the Aspen Institute explains (pdf), this is too often presented through stand-alone modules with minimal influence on curricula, let alone broader business community and its practices.
But it’s imperative now that we embrace intellectual activism. We need substantial change in business schools so that they produce, and engage with, knowledge and practices that serve the public interest.
Intellectual activism, as theorised by Professor Patricia Hills Collins, describes the how the “power of ideas” can work for social justice. But how?
In teaching, we need to ensure that our students grasp how specific social institutions and rules have developed – and who they benefit. They should learn, for example, that current American corporate capitalism, with its powerful lobbies shaping public opinion, is not the only game in town – other arrangements are possible, with different outcomes.
Rather than focusing solely on the corporation, we can teach how value is produced in multiple organisational forms – for example, small and medium family enterprises, co-operatives and social enterprises. We can subvert the often-prescribed one-size-fits-all theory by paying close attention to differences of class, gender and race and looking at how colour-blindness affects people management.
In research and scholarship, we can shake off the tunnel vision that comes from concentrating on economic objectives at the expense of social ones. We must take responsibility for the theories we develop and the practices we sanction.
It’s also important that, as academic managers, we reflect on our own working practices. For example, how do we counter race and gender biases that research shows are pervasive in teaching evaluations when we assess colleagues for promotion? How do we maintain a collegial environment in the face of the “publish or perish” ethos prevalent in business school culture?
Do we facilitate open debate and collective deliberation, or are we content with being what Mats Alvesson and André Spicer call “stupid leaders”?
It’s true that intellectual activism is not easy. But in a post-truth era, critical thinking is vital and concerns for progressive values of freedom, equality and solidarity in our societies even more urgent.
Such activism is already manifest in some business schools. In my own workplace, it’s in the work our research group is doing with executive director Bob Massie in building the Sustainable Solution Lab to “develop, test, and implement interdisciplinary solutions that are environmentally sound, economically sustainable and socially just.”
It can also be seen in the Emerging Leader programme, which develops Boston leaders “who reflect the changing demography of our region and who embrace a collaborative leadership model”, and in my colleague Prof Özkazanç-Pan’s research on the barriers affecting women and minority entrepreneurs.
No doubt, and perhaps justifiably, the stereotype of business school academics will remain for a while yet. But innovative change that unites the drive for efficiency and value creation with social and environmental justice is underway. I, for one, am happy to be part of that particular school of thought.
From The Guardian