The Shocking Truth About Business Schools

Bill Clinton at NYU CommencementIn his address to NYU’s graduating class at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, former President Bill Clinton took square aim against one of the great evils of our time: business schools.  Here is a quote from his speech (the entire speech can be found on YouTube):

“I was probably the last generation of Americans until the present day who could have gotten an MBA, if I went to business school instead of law school, with the prevailing theory being that American corporations had obligations primarily to their stakeholders. Ever since then we’ve been teaching our young people that your primary obligation is only to the shareholder. The problem is that if you do that you ignore the other stakeholders.”

It sounds plausible to blame business schools. After all, we know that business and the financial industry are to blame for the major economic meltdown of the last several years. And we know that those businesses had to learn their bad economic and management theory from somewhere. When there is a lack of morality and integrity in the practitioners of management, why not blame the places that teach managers to manage. Blame the b-schools.

What I find so startling about this statement is that the 42nd President of the United States is speaking in such totalizing terms that he is actually ignoring a fundamental shift in business schools. In fact, the “stakeholder” model that he talks about as an inspired solution is a product of the very business schools that he is pointing towards as the problem. This stakeholder model has been taught as a part of understanding management issues since the mid-1980s at the Schulich School of Business where I work which, according to Dean Horvath, our long-standing Dean, was one of the first schools to implement it.

“Ever since then we’ve been teaching our young people that your primary obligation is only to the shareholder,” said Clinton. But reading his speech, I cannot help but wonder if President Clinton has heard of the “triple bottom line” approach that has become a common element of many business school’s curricula. The triple bottom line concretizes stakeholder theory by providing a system of measuring the 3 Ps of people, planet and profit, and managing by measuring how well each are being accounted for in the management of an organization. The system has not been perfected, but it is widespread and widely taught. As a marketing professor, I have always used stakeholder theory to discuss marketing ethics in my classes at Kellogg, University of Wisconsin, and of course at Schulich.

Clinton said that this profit-above-all viewpoint of MBAs and business schools “could be why wages have been virtually stagnant for the past 30 years”  because it misses the fact that “workers are stakeholders.” That bad b-school perspective could be behind communal stagnation, “because communities are stakeholders” and behind consumer apathy.

Humbug, I say.

I would like to invite Bill Clinton to learn more about (and perhaps even participate in) the work of the Aspen Institute, a foundation that is dedicated to fostering values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. Every 2 years, the institute gives out an award called “Beyond Grey Pinstripes” to business schools. It ranks the top 100 MBA programs in the world for how well they are equipping future business leaders with a comprehensive and integrated understanding of social and environmental issues impacting business – everything from increased consumer activism and climate change to corporate social responsibility. Here are the current top 10 global business schools, according to this important ranking.

  1. York University (Schulich School of Business)
  2. U. of Michigan (Ross)
  3. Yale School of Management
  4. Stanford Graduate School of Business
  5. Notre Dame (Mendoza)
  6. UC Berkeley (Haas)
  7. RSM Erasmus
  8. NYU (Stern)
  9. IE Business
  10. Columbia Business School

Seven of the top 10 business schools in this ranking are in the USA. Who is on top? It happens to be my own (shameless plug here…) Schulich School. Oh, and Mr. Former President, you were actually addressing the graduating class from the 8th ranked  business school in the world on these stakeholder matters. The MBA class, to be exact. Is it just me, or does anyone else find that fact that he overlooked that incredible fact incredibly ignorant?

Bill Clinton, in his speech, seems to be missing all the wonderful work done by business schools, business school Deans, business school leaders, devoted b-school professors, alumni, and students. Instead, painting with a broad and stereotyping brush, they are villainized as The Source and Fount of The Great Evil: the Spreaders of Bad Ideology. How absurd. How negative. Charging $100,000 per speech, Mr. President, you really need to be more careful to do your homework.

I’d give that part of your speech an F.

The astonishing and surprising truth that former President Clinton’s speech ignores is that, although some business schools may have at one time been a part of the problem, many of them today are building the solutions to social and organizational problems. They are far from perfect. But they are definitely not the unidimensional Profit-as-Monotheistic Religion institutions that Bill Clinton’s speech makes them out to be. 

And that is something not only to be surprised about, but to celebrate.