‘Woke’ business schools? The reality is quite the opposite

If Jordan Peterson and his ilk think business schools have been taken over by a Marxist mob, they clearly haven’t been in one recently, says Carl Rhodes

二月 3, 2022
A business person sleeps with post-it notes of open eyes on his eyes
Source: iStock

The resignation of Jordan Peterson from the University of Toronto has set tongues wagging – especially his. Addressing his retirement in the National Post, Peterson stated: “I am academic persona non grata, because of my unacceptable philosophical positions.”

Those positions concern Peterson’s fervent criticism of DIE – his acrimonious acronym for diversity, inclusivity and equity. “Radical leftists”, Peterson explains, have infected all walks of life, including business. He singles out CEOs as being “blind, cowed and cowardly” in kneeling before a progressive agenda antithetical to “free-market enterprise”.

Peterson is far from alone in his criticism of “woke business”. US senator Marco Rubio recently bemoaned that the “corporate elite kowtow to the woke, Marxist mobs that dominate the internet and Hollywood”. It’s all a conspiracy by the “the woke industrial complex”, warns entrepreneur turned political commentator Vivek Ramaswamy.

Business schools are also in the firing line of this reactionary bluster. According to an article published by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, they have been captured by the “woke mob”. This seizure is apparently evidenced by a “nigh universal endorsement of progressive values” in business education.

The idea that business schools – commonly conceived as training schools for conservative capitalists – have been taken over by a red-flag-waving wokerati hell bent on smashing the racist patriarchy is as fantastical as the belief that crazed commies are running American corporations. Marxist mobs, they say? While Karl Marx had a lot to say about commerce and industry, his work is never read by most business school researchers.

I suppose Peterson and his ilk are more concerned with their concocted notion of “cultural Marxism”: the politically correct denunciation of Western supremacy and an unyielding devotion to using correct personal pronouns. Still, the ideas that business schools are havens of woke activism is idiotic. In US business schools, only 4 per cent of academics are black, Latin or indigenous. Even across the academy more generally, a mere 0.7 per cent of UK professors are black. Women are a bit better represented, but they still only account for less than 30 per cent of full professors in the US and 22 per cent in the UK. Deans are mostly men, too. Let’s face it, universities are jam-packed with white guys (myself included).

So what do these white male professors do? Are they propagating cultural Marxism on behalf of the unrepresented minorities? Are they peddling politically correct mumbo jumbo to undermine Western civilisation? No.

Despite important pockets of dissent, the majority of what business school academics do is ingrained with a conservative ethos. Business school curricula have long been dominated by the spirit of neoliberal capitalism, relatively unconcerned with political issues such as justice and equality. Indeed, they have actively purged academics who were critical of business and who might be associated with Marxism. Such was the case last year at the University of Leicester, where left-leaning academics were targeted for redundancy because their work was not relevant to “mainstream” business. “Shaping for excellence” is what the university called it.

Anti-woke campaigners are quick to whinge that the dominance of progressive values is silencing free speech – especially if that speech is socially conservative. With business schools, quite the opposite is the case; it is progressive views that have been traditionally suppressed. They still lack the kind of political diversity that would enable the role of business in society to be questioned, reformulated and improved for the good of all.

The tradition of conservatism has been exacerbated by business schools’ morbid obsession with journal ranking systems and league tables. We’ve been left with a situation where knowledge is valued because it enables a school to compete in an unnatural market with other schools – an extension of boyish playground games if ever there was one. Business school research has been reduced to an investment that yields competitive advantage and financial returns. You can’t get less woke than that!

If business schools have any real purpose, it is training the leaders of tomorrow. In a world beset by widening inequality, the threat of political populism and climate emergency, we need leaders who can create lasting change and progress.

This is why business schools should fear conservative cancel culture. It presents the real and present danger of positive change being forestalled by a pre-emptive reactionary backlash. It risks binding them eternally to an expired neoliberalism, hamstrung by intellectual and political inertia.

Hope for a better future should never be cancelled.

Carl Rhodes is dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author of Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality Is Sabotaging Democracy (Bristol University Press).



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Reader's comments (4)

I'm a woke, liberal-leftie, snowflake, Social Justice Warrior (all badges I wear with pride because I think they simply amount to being a nice person) and I work in a business school. If there are any "radical leftists" or "Marxist mobs" around here, then they are keeping their heads *very* low down.
I would like to point out the large number of things the author is overlooking and is incorrect about in this piece. However, if I do, I could get in trouble because the woke mob that the author claims doesn't exist would come after me. How ironic....
"ideas that business schools are havens of woke activism is idiotic" - indeed. Many are led by ruthless, cynical, fairweather virtue signallers who will exploit anything that will benefit themselves. Do not take their utterings as any sincere committment to any societal good. I may be basing my opinion on a sample of one but look at this dismal statistic.." only 0.7 p er cent of UK professors are black". The stats for other ethinicities may be slightly better, but they too face significant hurdles in progression. These same people who have failed and continue to fail to address this will run back to back events every single day for say the black history month or have countless inclusion workshops and the like. What a farce. Cheap talk and virtue signalling. There are gross inequalites that needs to be addressed, if it takes take a marxist to address it, then so be it.
A very opinionated piece that, honestly, anyone could write in a moment of frustration. Having worked at universities in at least three different nations, I have witnessed quite a bit of woke behaviour, especially from the higher echelons of business schools. The staff, silently, take it all in and plod along. To say that academia is becoming woke, just like some public and private entities, is not idiotic at all. It is a bit pathetic for the author to aim at Professor Peterson in his piece. I doubt he would entertain a face-to-face, mano-a-mano direct debate with him to discuss more in-depth aspects of wokeism. It's easier to write a short piece and stay in the quiet. Furthermore, I wonder what lower percentages of certain groups being represented in academia has anything do with being woke or conservative. As Professor Peterson advocates, having access to certain positions should be based on meritocracy, not on pushing a narrative to fulfil diversity-based agendas. Based on my experience, when going for a job interview I would be much more afraid of woke than conservative behaviour. I hope I won't be cancelled for having a different point of view. Have a good day.