Author discusses his book on the history of business schools

Steven Conn is not impressed with business schools. The historian thinks they are poorly organized and botch the curriculum — and have done so for decades. He tells their story in Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools (Cornell University Press).

Conn, the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, responded to questions about his book via email.

Q: Why is it important to study the way business was taught before there were business schools? Are there lessons from this period?

A: I was fascinated to discover that when the Wharton School was founded in 1881, there was already a thriving world of business — or “commerce,” as it was called then — education all over the country. It was carried out in proprietary schools, some of which developed into chains or franchise operations. And they did a perfectly fine job educating men — and women! — for work in the new world of American business. These graduates contributed to the managerial revolution of the late 19th century.

Studying these proprietary schools enabled me to ask why some people felt it necessary to open collegiate schools of business in the first place. And the answer, put bluntly, was a desire for prestige and cultural cachet. These people wanted businessmen to enjoy the same status as doctors and lawyers, and they felt the only way to get it was with a specialized degree in business — though the actual business education those students got at the new business schools was often indistinguishable from what they would have received at the local proprietary school down the street.

I think those tensions are still around today. Business schools still struggle with whether they simply offer vo-tech education or whether they offer something more, or better, or deeper than that. But there is still cultural capital attached to getting a college degree in business. Ask an accounting major at Wharton why he doesn’t get the same training at the nearby community college — for a lot less money — and he’ll stare at you like you’re out of your mind.

Q: How have business schools changed the discipline of economics?

A: Not much. The relationship between business schools and economics departments on many campuses has vacillated between indifference and outright hostility. Sometimes business schools thought of themselves as teaching “applied economics;” sometimes they thought of economists as merely a subset of the business school faculty. The dean of the business school at the University of Illinois called the econ faculty a “service department” in the 1920s. Economists, needless to say, bristled.

After World War II, however, as economics moved in increasingly abstruse, opaque and mathematical directions, business schools weren’t even sure what kind of economics they should teach, and economists felt that associating with business schools was a drag on the development of their discipline. And as plenty of people have pointed out, running a business doesn’t really have much in common with understanding and modeling the economy.

Q: How do women and minorities fare in business schools?

A: Terribly! Next question. To return to those proprietary schools for a moment, I was surprised to discover how many women attended them, and so another distinction between them and the new collegiate schools of business was that the latter were all male. No girls allowed! That isn’t altogether surprising given that some of the earliest were founded at institutions that did not admit women in the first place — Dartmouth, Harvard — but even at places that were coed, women were largely excluded from the business schools on those campuses. The same story can be told about people of color, though the exclusions were less explicit and more a matter of practice, except in the South, where business schools opened on racially segregated campuses.

What I think is truly shocking is how much business schools lag behind the rest of campus in striving for greater diversity and inclusion. Gender parity has been reached by many medical schools and law schools in large part because those places have worked hard to address the issue. Business schools not so much, and in this sense they help to reproduce the environment of corporate America: overwhelmingly male in the upper echelons, and overwhelmingly white.

Q: What about the business school culture prevents changes you would advocate?

A: This is a complicated question, and I’ll start by saying that I suspect many, many faculty at business schools would also like to see some fundamental changes in the places they work.

There are several things that make those changes difficult. First, there is the usual kind of institutional inertia — nothing about universities changes very much or very quickly. But in the case of business schools, there are no real pressures to change in the first place. As far as university administrations and trustees are concerned, their B-schools have been success stories. They’ve enrolled lots of students and brought in lots of alumni money. So for central administration, it ain’t broke and therefore doesn’t need to be fixed.

Second, businesses themselves haven’t helped the situation. While business leaders have complained decade after decade about the quality of what business schools turn out, they haven’t offered much to fix that problem. If corporate recruiters announced that they would no longer hire graduates who didn’t know how to speak a foreign language or who did not have extensive training in ethics or who couldn’t write competently, business schools would change quickly. Finally, I would lay some of the blame on students themselves (and increasingly on their parents). Lots of students know that, as one Wharton undergrad told me, business school is a “huge hack,” because it grooms students for “high-paying careers without needing to apply much effort and is perhaps the easiest track to big bucks on Wall Street.” This is what business students want and what they expect. Tough to change that kind of culture.

Q: Will the current decline in M.B.A. enrollments change business schools?

A: I doubt it. It is certainly true that the precipitous decline in M.B.A. applications, not just at the B-list B-schools but at the upmarket places, too, has many deans losing sleep at night. But I doubt it will cause any real reckoning or self-reflection. In fact, I suspect that rather than rethink the M.B.A., many of those deans are secretly rooting for a recession. The evidence since the 1970s is clear: when the economy goes down, applications to business schools go up. Never mind the obvious irony about that — students since the stagflation days have flocked to business schools as the best place to weather economic downturns. So I suspect that as far as business school administrators are concerned, nothing ails the B-school that a good recession can’t cure.

 

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