Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools, by Steven Conn

John Anchor enjoys an account of where business schools have gone wrong

January 9, 2020
British Bulldog Dressed As Businessman Looking Sad At Desk
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Steven Conn charts the rise and rise of American business schools on university campuses from their historical origins as practice-based colleges in the second half of the 19th century. There are a number of other authors, particularly in the B-School (to use the lingo) world, who have come to similar conclusions about their efficacy. However, there are few who have done so using a historical lens so rich in anecdote. Although Conn’s overall position on B-School failures is clear, his thematic approach means that it is possible to read the first five of his six chapters as self-contained entities.

Conn highlights areas of alleged failure by US B-Schools. The most important is their production of business executives, particularly MBA-holding executives, who have engaged in extreme versions of shareholder capitalism. This has led to both unethical business behaviour and the crashing of the world economy in the 2008 financial crisis. Requests to include ethics in the B-School curriculum have often fallen on stony ground and have resulted in electives, rather than core modules, in responsible management education. This may have increased the likelihood of business scandals, although individual responsibility should not be downplayed. However, the most damaging and incontrovertible allegation is that the financial engineering tools and products that led directly to the financial crisis were made in B-Schools.

Conn also traverses, somewhat less convincingly, the subjects of gender and race among both the student body and the staff of business schools. He shows that they were white and male for most of their history – but, as he himself admits, so were most universities. He does find, however, that academics and managers after the Second World War became increasingly keen to recruit more female students because they were often better motivated than their male counterparts – perhaps a harbinger of things to come. However, women were often unable to obtain graduate employment because of the labour laws. Because of racial segregation, many black students ended up studying business at what are now called historically black colleges, rather than in the largely white university business schools. Conn also examines the (sometimes uneasy) relationship between business schools and economics as a subject. However, his focus on political economy means that he misses the important influence of economics on subjects such as strategy, marketing and organisational behaviour.

American B-Schools are much older than their European counterparts, which were established from the 1950s onwards in parallel with the expansion of higher education more generally. Nevertheless, the issues and dilemmas that have bedevilled American B-Schools have also manifested themselves in Europe. Many of them relate to an underlying question: what or who are business schools for – should they focus on the study of business or exist in the service of business? The issue has never been resolved, either in the US or elsewhere, and now finds expression in the debate about (mathematical) rigour versus relevance. The result has been that business school academics have incentives to turn out impenetrable journal articles, while businesses claim that their graduates lack the skills that they need in the real world of work.

John Anchor is professor of international strategy and associate dean (international) at the Huddersfield Business School.


Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools
By Steven Conn
Cornell University Press
288pp, £27.99
ISBN 9781501742071
Published 15 October 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Crashing out with no ethics

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