Business of being allies

September 25, 1998

Business schools are in the vanguard of the creation of more entrepreneurial universities, so let us use them. says Christopher Grey.

Business and management schools are an important part of the modern university. Twenty years ago only a handful existed - now there are about 100, with management the most popular undergraduate subject.

But business schools, often conceived of as "cash cows", are in the vanguard of the creation of a more entrepreneurial vision of the university. This received wide attention with the publication of Burton R. Clark's Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Pathways of Transformation. At the extreme, this envisages business schools as peripheral units, barely recognisable as academic departments, responding to the training, consultancy and research needs of external users, notably in the private sector.

It is not surprising, then, that business schools have attracted hostility from traditional academics, who often see them as homes for the intellectually inadequate, biased towards business values and even handmaidens of the managerialism sweeping through universities. Moreover, they are regarded with great suspicion as heralding the more widespread application of the entrepreneurial model of the university.

Yet both objectors to, and proponents of, the business school share assumptions about its nature that are incorrect. To study management is not to be pro management, any more than to study fascism is to be pro fascism. You are more likely to find radical critique and intellectual sophistication in a business school than almost anywhere else in a university.

One of the principal reasons for this is that the expansion of business schools and consequent demand for staff coincided with major cutbacks in social science funding. In the 1980s a substantial, mainly young, contingent of staff trained in social science, and bringing its various theoretical traditions and political affiliations, arrived in business schools to develop subjects such as organisational behaviour, accounting and business economics. Since they had to give attention to management, it is unsurprising that it has been in business schools that the most well-informed, most cogent and most damning critiques of management practices and managerialism are to be found.

This was a (surely) unintended consequence of Thatcherite higher education policies and a second was to follow: the development of research assessment regimes gave a substantial boost to the new management academics. They could deliver the significant journal publications that secured high research rankings. So the better management and accounting journals contain more discussion of Derrida than of Disneyworld, more Bataille than balance sheets.

It is quite mistaken to imagine that management academics are either intellectually inferior or committed to capitalist values. And those who persist in regarding business schools as the advance guard for their fatuous "visions" of entrepreneurship are in for a nasty shock: they will find that many management academics are busy deconstructing and critiquing notions of entrepreneurship.

It would be absurd to depict business schools as seething hotbeds of radicalism. There are many management academics who align themselves with business values. There are others who would see themselves as disinterested observers. There are some, of all political persuasions, who conduct research that is indeed vacuous. There are many, especially at more senior levels, who are committed advocates of the entrepreneurial model of the university. But this would be true of any discipline.

In some respects, business schools are among the least promising testing grounds for the entrepreneurial university. The assumption is that they are more capable of undertaking near-market activities because of the skills and values of their staff. But even to the extent that this is true, it is true of people who have made a deliberate and, usually, financially punitive decision not to be directly involved in business. Anyone who is willing and able to be a management consultant can pick up lucrative employment in the private sector. Management academics have typically made a relatively more deliberate and conscious choice for "traditional" academic values than their counterparts in many other parts of the university.

What goes on in business schools is like what has gone on in universities for several hundred years. There is a vogue for studying management as a preparation for work (not underpinned by evidence that it makes better managers). Thirty years ago studying sociology might have been a route of entry into the public service, 70 years ago studying classics was an entree to the Imperial Civil Service. Business schools are merely offering the sort of liberal education that social elites have long found advantageous. That may or may not be desirable but it mounts no challenge to traditionalism.

So, contrary to received wisdom, the UK business school in the 1990s is not the ally of a more commercial, entrepreneurial and managerial model of the university. By the same token, it is not the antithesis of the traditional university. It would be appropriate, then, if those opposed to the vocationalism, managerialism and "dumbing down" of modern universities sought allies, rather than enemies, in their business schools.

Christopher Grey is senior lecturer in organisational analysis at Leeds University Business School. The views expressed are personal.

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