As birthdays go, the centennial that took place at Harvard Business School in mid-October was one high-powered affair. Roughly 2,000 alumni crowded into a huge temporary building on the campus green and watched as a two-day procession of CEOs took the stage, including former eBay boss Meg Whitman ('79), General Electric's Jeff Immelt ('82) and JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon ('82). (The organizers even included a few M.B.A.-less types, like Bill Gates and Larry Summers.) In panel discussions, they offered their views on the current financial crisis, generally praising Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke while also urging more-frequent dialogue between corporate bosses and Washington even when the Dow isn't in daily freefall.
But after the last panel adjourned, an equally robust discussion began in a small adjacent classroom before far fewer attendees. The topic: "The Future of M.B.A. Education." As professors David Garvin and Srikant Datar clicked through PowerPoint slides, there was little to celebrate. For 18 months they'd interviewed deans, recruiters, faculty and alumni from several dozen top B-schools. As graphs flickered across the whiteboard, they laid out their conclusion. While top schools like Harvard still receive plenty of applications, many top-50 M.B.A. programs are seeing full-time enrollments decline as students migrate toward part-time or executive programs, which they view as more cost-effective. At some companies, longer-tenured employees without an M.B.A. face better odds of getting promoted than newcomers who hold the degree, and some employers now dissuade star employees from returning to school for an M.B.A. at all. Recruiters say the M.B.A.s they do hire have learned little about such skills as giving presentations, navigating corporate politics or leading co-workers. "The M.B.A. degree may be at an inflection point," Garvin says.
These are hardly new criticisms. During their early years, business schools were derided as overly vocational. To overcome that knock, B-school professors began doing the kind of obscure, highly technical studies that professors of physics or chemistry must do to win tenure. That approach has given business-school professors more respect within academia but arguably less relevance to students and employers. In 2005, writing in the Harvard Business Review, USC professors Warren Bennis and James O'Toole argued the "scientific research model" was driving business schools to "institutionalize their own irrelevance."
Some students have been giving the programs mixed reviews, too. Just this year, Philip Delves Broughton ('06) chronicled his experience in "Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School." While his account isn't all scathing, he finds much to dislike about the place. (Sample chapter titles: "Ethical Jihadists" and "A Factory for Unhappy People.") Many of the academic exercises are pointless, he writes; the social scene is a bit frat-astic, and students are strangely competitive in a place where it's hard to fail. The alumni he meets while networking seem rich but unhappy. "Why were my classmates straining so hard to secure jobs they knew would make them miserable?" Broughton wrote—even before the stock market likely wiped out most of his classmates' bonuses.
As insiders question whether M.B.A. programs are doing well at their basic mission, some observers are calling on them to raise their sights. In the symposium's most thoughtful remarks, Civil War historian and Harvard president Drew Faust suggested that B-schools may teach their students to become so focused on competing against colleagues and tallying individual rewards that they suffer "a kind of blindness" to "the fundamental interconnectedness of humankind, of societies and of economies." Like several others, she called for a more statesmanlike approach from the grads inhabiting corner offices, particularly as the current financial crisis requires CEOs to think about the welfare of a broad set of people who aren't necessarily shareholders.
In a way, it's an oddly timed request. After all, despite all the prominent folks lauded at the event, there was little mention of the school's best-known alum, George W. Bush. For almost eight years, he's had precisely the job of looking over the broadest array of individuals. And his tenure could surely provide fodder for any number of case studies: on the value of planning and transparency; on the role of advisers; on the relevance of history; and comparing decision making in government to that in the private sector. Those are big-ticket and big-think matters. So as the country's leading B-school considers how to address the threats that professors like Garvin and Datar say are looming, I'll be hoping they think about these broader issues. I hope B-schools find ways to enhance the skills of the people who'll be managing our 401(k)s, running our banks and underwriting our mortgages in the years ahead. But it couldn't hurt to aim even higher.