Report from an elite school

Snapshots from Hell
November 24, 1995

If Adrian Mole had gone to business school, this is the book he would probably have written. These "snapshots" are supposed to represent the year in the life of the author at Stanford University's business school. Yet rather than providing an insight into the MBA experience, we get a mishmash of critique, gossip, indignation and fudged soap opera writing.

To begin with, we are told that the characters in the book are composites. How can Robinson provide a picture of experience at Stanford if these composites are a device for what appears to be a frustrated novelist's attempts at giving us wit and pathos? Perhaps, in typical American style, he wishes to "share" his experiences with us (and I suppose it is cheaper than psychoanalysis). Unfortunately, the composite characters developed are largely two-dimensional stereotypes. What we have is a very ethnocentric, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant account of life at an exclusive finishing school.

Robinson pours out his woes at being a poet. Poets at Stanford are people who did not do vocational degrees and have not worked in a business setting. (He was a speech writer for Presidents Reagan and Bush.) Therefore, his diary starts with math and computer camp for those who do not possess the basics. We are given an overview of these camps and the basics which are taught; these would not be out of place in any introductory first year undergraduate programme. The author takes great delight in telling us that he found someone to sit next to who was in deeper trouble than himself. Examples are provided of the kind of problems they had to solve, complete with replica spreadsheet.

We are quickly introduced to the misfits comprising the faculty and the administrator who tells them "Do not vaste eefen ten minutes" (sic). This phonetic spelling is designed, I imagine, to show how inferior non-Americans are. Although we are told grudgingly that "even foreign students appeared to be possessed of the can-do pioneering American spirit". After all, this is Stanford and you have to be successful to get in!

In taking us inside the classroom, we are shown the kind of work students have to undertake in their core classes. What comes across very clearly is how 1960s the curriculum is with a heavy emphasis on number crunching. We are given quite a few examples of problems (and occasionally the solutions) students had to prepare. This becomes boring after a short time and serves little purpose for the potential MBA applicant, except perhaps to put him or her off. What is telling in this initial diatribe is the antipathy felt against poor quality teaching from inexperienced faculty. Part of the appeal of places like Stanford is the expertise and fame of their professors yet it appears that most of those actually encountered were junior and, if we are to believe Robinson's account, would have difficulty in tying their shoelaces without assistance.

I kept wondering if he had a fabulous memory, used a tape recorder or just made up the extensive quotes used throughout the book. Conversations are quoted verbatim, as are chunks of lectures. This style somewhat bogs the book down and it is unclear the purpose these quotes serve except to give it the feel of a badly written novel.

Having survived into the spring term, Robinson sticks the knife into the strategic management professor, with the quiet voice that everyone struggles to hear. He makes much of the internal market created within the class one day in buying and selling on newspapers that some students brought into the class; this is used to illustrate how bad things were. Yet in all of this moaning about the quality of teaching, it seems strange that over 300 supposedly intelligent people did little about the situation apart from a half-hearted attempt to talk to the course administrator during the early part of the programme.

One of the most relevant parts of the book is when we are introduced to "cold calling" in the marketing class. This involved groups being selected, with the aid of a computer program, to present their analysis of cases. Such presentations were often given to representatives of the companies concerned. Here we see the difficulties students have in analysing cases, identifying problems and looking beyond the obvious, and some of the excitement and energy expended on interacting, learning and thinking on your feet. It is a shame the rest of the book did not follow this approach.

Disaster, in our Stanford MBAs eyes, struck with the publication of a survey which ranked their institution ninth in the US. You could just hear the gnashing of teeth and the baying for blood. At last, we see the real side of MBA life American style. They are paying a lot of money for this piece of paper and expect to get it from a Stanford which is at the top of the rankings. And herein lies the irony of this "insider's account of what business school is really like". It has nothing to do with education. It revolves around the brand image you buy and the potential business contacts you make and their future exploitability. It is personal network marketing on a grand style.

Yet by the end of the book, it was clear that even strong brands can remain on the high-powered career shelf when it comes to being chosen by elite employers. And this is where this book should remain - on the shelf.

John Sinclair is director of the organisational change research unit, Napier University.

Snapshots from Hell

Author - Peter Robinson
ISBN - 1 85788 080 3
Publisher - Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Price - £9.99
Pages - 283

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