Leicester to host business 'Utopia'

April 11, 2003

Many business schools are sacrificing academic independence as they pursue research agendas driven by private industry, according to Gibson Burrell, new head of the University of Leicester's management centre.

Professor Burrell, a professor of organisation theory, has radical plans for "rediscovering a Utopian spirit" in management research and teaching.

He said: "The context for management research in the UK has become more Americanised, and I am deeply disturbed by what appears to be a return to the intellectual conservatism of the mid-1970s, where it becomes more difficult to develop different research areas and adopt different methodologies.

"It is essential that as academics we are independent, standing outside a topic, and can address it without worrying too much whether the implications of our conclusions will be relevant to a particular client group," he said.

Professor Burrell aims to set a new agenda for management teaching at Leicester by broadening the subject from its crude concentration on private industry, into "hugely neglected areas" such as the voluntary and public sectors, trade unions, anti-capitalist movements and groups opposed to business.

Leicester management centre will double in size this year, with the recruitment of another 16 to 20 academics, including nine new chairs.

Already there have been more than 135 applicants for the jobs, drawn by the proposed "critical community of scholars", which Professor Burrell aims to create.

"Business schools don't all have to look the same, and I want to prove it is possible to create something different. I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help build an alternative to the conventional management centre, which is driven by an American agenda where quantitative methods are seen as unquestionably superior to qualitative methods," he said.

"The deep-seated problems with these scientistic approaches seem to have been conveniently forgotten in a desire to mimic what is fashionable across the Atlantic."

While acknowledging that US business schools have produced some of the best management thinkers, Professor Burrell criticised the unquestioning belief in North American superiority held by many British academics, and argued for a far broader and more critical orientation.

"My plans for Leicester are to create a more egalitarian community - an intellectually exciting place where the quality of work not the quantity is seen as essential. There would be no publishing for publishing's sake," he said.

A sociology graduate who spent five years at Leicester as a student, Professor Burrell went on to do his PhD at Manchester Business School. His first academic post was at the University of Lancaster where he spent 11 years. From there he moved to the University of Warwick Business School, and then to his most recent post at the University of Essex.

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