Lamenting the failings of business schools isn’t enough. We need to act

Beyond despair’s cold comfort lies the possibility of doing things differently, starting with what is within our own power, say Carl Rhodes and Alison Pullen

十一月 30, 2023
Illustration: a businessman tries to stop a line of falling dominoes, being pushed over by a giant hand
Source: iStock

What is the purpose of a business school? The scandals that have rocked the sector over the past few years paint a grim picture of elitist institutions obsessed with financial metrics, league table rankings and inter-institutional competition.

Even when big problems such as climate change are taken up in the classroom, the approach has been slammed for being too insipid to drive any real change. Business schools’ unwillingness to upset the apple cart of corporate capitalism has even been seen to be complicit in the scourge of right-wing populism around the world.

Confronted with such severe and compelling criticisms, what might business schools do to change? This is precisely the question we asked in a recent paper we published in the journal Organization.

Our paper drew on sociologist Raewyn Connell’s groundbreaking work on the “good university”. Connell conceives of the good university as a collective activity of research and teaching that is built on five criteria: democratic governance; engagement with society; dedication to the truth; creativity in teaching and research; and social and financial sustainability.

The bad news is that business schools, by and large, fail against all these criteria. On governance, many business academics are acutely aware of the shortcomings of the institutions that employ them. They paint a dismal picture of schools beholden to instrumental managerialism, where so-called leaders obsess over metrics while incentivising narrow and elitist research agendas.

Democratic? Business schools have been moving in precisely the opposite direction, towards forms of governance characterised by top-down hierarchy and centralised control, where traditional values of collegiality and shared decision-making are seen as quaint and old-fashioned.

Rather than being primarily engaged with the problems of the world in which they are located, business schools are preoccupied with managing by a narrow set of numerical performance indicators. If there is engagement, it is with league tables measuring competitive success with other business schools, or with journal ranking systems.

Even when “social impact” is wheeled out as a new way of measuring success, it is massively depoliticised and reduced to that which can be captured in managerially oriented measurement systems. These schools are less interested in the truth than in creating a competitive market position through bogus proxies for academic excellence.

In place of scholarly creativity, business schools promote individualised careerism along narrow disciplinary lines, creating scholarly environments hostile to openness and critical questioning. Financial sustainability is replaced with labour casualisation and profiteering.

But if we accept that business schools have failed miserably to be positive, progressive and engaged academic institutions focused on contributing to the public good, what might be done about it? More saliently, who is going to do it?

If anyone is still waiting for change to come from enlightened academic administrators, they can expect to keep waiting. But, at present, academics appear much more willing to criticise the shortcomings of business schools than to actually do anything about them.

The good news is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the belief that universities serve the purpose of the public good is still present. The key to change, then, is to work to fulfil that purpose through whatever means is at our disposal – our teaching practice, our research activity, our public engagement and our ways of managing.

Outside of woke-washing headlines produced by university PR teams, the everyday work of academics is where the real differences are made. Faculty don’t have to wait for permission from their deans to get started. Beyond the cold comfort of despairing about the business school lie the hopeful possibilities of doing things differently, each of us starting with ourselves and what is within our power.

There is a view, reinforced by accreditation and ranking systems, that business schools should all pursue a single model of excellence. But the institution of the business school is not a monolith. Just as there have been different forms in the past, there can also be different ones in the future. Schools need to have the courage and the conviction to define their own public purposes in relation to the communities they are a part of.

From that, new programmes, curricula, pedagogies and partnerships can develop a new generation of “business citizens”, who can not only perform the functions of business but can also understand the broader position of business in society and manage complex practical, social, environmental and ethical challenges.

The reforms must go beyond adding a new major here and a new research centre there. Transformational change means rethinking all core business school activities in research, teaching and engagement to align with a new purpose. Being a public and democratic school entails working closely and collaboratively with businesses, policymakers and public institutions to produce socially responsible and economically fair outcomes. It also means using education and research as a pathway to individual mobility, social diversity, environmental sustainability and economic equality.

Critique practised only as an armchair sport is, at best, self-indulgent. At worst it is defeatist. For all business schools and for all business school academics, the opportunities to overcome current failings are there for the taking. This is no time for being a spectator.

Carl Rhodes is dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney. Alison Pullen is professor of gender work and organisation at Macquarie Business School, Sydney.



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Reader's comments (2)

This is a purely partisan piece; not sure why it is even here. The author appears to postulate that the biggest problem with the business schools is that they seem to, in the author's opinion, to lean to the political parties he is against. Whether or not that is *actually* a problem in need of fixing is a highly debatable issue. It just feels quite strange to see it pleaded here.
The 25 years decline of business schools into their contemporary pointlessness coincides with the rise and rise of critical management studies. Many academics who might have challenged and changed the direction of travel have been seduced by the chance to write papers that are hugely critical of the system while enjoying successful careers, as long as said papers get published in sufficiently prestigious journals.