Visit the average university campus and it is likely that the newest and most ostentatious building will be occupied by the business school. The business school has the best building because it makes the biggest profits (or, euphemistically, “contribution” or “surplus”) – as you might expect, from a form of knowledge that teaches people how to make profits.
Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed. (There is a whole genre of jokes about what MBA – Master of Business Administration – really stands for: “Mediocre But Arrogant”, “Management by Accident”, “More Bad Advice”, “Master Bullshit Artist” and so on.) Critics of business schools come in many shapes and sizes: employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital. Since 2008, many commentators have also suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash.
Having taught in business schools for 20 years, I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether. This is not a typical view among my colleagues. Even so, it is remarkable just how much criticism of business schools over the past decade has come from inside the schools themselves. Many business school professors, particularly in north America, have argued that their institutions have gone horribly astray. B-schools have been corrupted, they say, by deans following the money, teachers giving the punters what they want, researchers pumping out paint-by-numbers papers for journals that no one reads and students expecting a qualification in return for their cash (or, more likely, their parents’ cash). At the end of it all, most business-school graduates won’t become high-level managers anyway, just precarious cubicle drones in anonymous office blocks.
These are not complaints from professors of sociology, state policymakers or even outraged anti-capitalist activists. These are views in books written by insiders, by employees of business schools who themselves feel some sense of disquiet or even disgust at what they are getting up to. Of course, these dissenting views are still those of a minority. Most work within business schools is blithely unconcerned with any expression of doubt, participants being too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going. Still, this internal criticism is loud and significant.
The problem is that these insiders’ dissent has become so thoroughly institutionalised within the well-carpeted corridors that it now passes unremarked, just an everyday counterpoint to business as usual. Careers are made by wailing loudly in books and papers about the problems with business schools. The business school has been described by two insiders as “a cancerous machine spewing out sick and irrelevant detritus”. Even titles such as Against Management, Fucking Management and The Greedy Bastard’s Guide to Business appear not to cause any particular difficulties for their authors. I know this, because I wrote the first two. Frankly, the idea that I was permitted to get away with this speaks volumes about the extent to which this sort of criticism means anything very much at all. In fact, it is rewarded, because the fact that I publish is more important than what I publish.
Most solutions to the problem of the B-school shy away from radical restructuring, and instead tend to suggest a return to supposedly more traditional business practices, or a form of moral rearmament decorated with terms such as “responsibility” and “ethics”. All of these suggestions leave the basic problem untouched, that the business school only teaches one form of organising – market managerialism.
That’s why I think that we should call in the bulldozers and demand an entirely new way of thinking about management, business and markets. If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem, or that the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, or that creating new desires is the purpose of marketing. In every case, the business school acts as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science.
Universities have been around for a millenium, but the vast majority of business schools only came into existence in the last century. Despite loud and continual claims that they were a US invention, the first was probably the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, founded in 1819 as a privately funded attempt to produce a grande école for business. A century later, hundreds of business schools had popped up across Europe and the US, and from the 1950s onwards, they began to grow rapidly in other parts of the world.
In 2011, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business estimated that there were then nearly 13,000 business schools in the world. India alone is estimated to have 3,000 private schools of business. Pause for a moment, and consider that figure. Think about the huge numbers of people employed by those institutions, about the armies of graduates marching out with business degrees, about the gigantic sums of money circulating in the name of business education. (In 2013, the top 20 US MBA programmes already charged at least $100,000 (£72,000). At the time of writing, London Business School is advertising a tuition fee of £84,500 for its MBA.) No wonder that the bandwagon keeps rolling.
For the most part, business schools all assume a similar form. The architecture is generic modern – glass, panel, brick. Outside, there’s some expensive signage offering an inoffensive logo, probably in blue, probably with a square on it. The door opens, automatically. Inside, there’s a female receptionist dressed office-smart. Some abstract art hangs on the walls, and perhaps a banner or two with some hopeful assertions: “We mean business.” “Teaching and Research for Impact.” A big screen will hang somewhere over the lobby, running a Bloomberg news ticker and advertising visiting speakers and talks about preparing your CV. Shiny marketing leaflets sit in dispensing racks, with images of a diverse tableau of open-faced students on the cover. On the leaflets, you can find an alphabet of mastery: MBA, MSc Management, MSc Accounting, MSc Management and Accounting, MSc Marketing, MSc International Business, MSc Operations Management.
There will be plush lecture theatres with thick carpet, perhaps named after companies or personal donors. The lectern bears the logo of the business school. In fact, pretty much everything bears the weight of the logo, like someone who worries their possessions might get stolen and so marks them with their name. Unlike some of the shabby buildings in other parts of the university, the business school tries hard to project efficiency and confidence. The business school knows what it is doing and has its well-scrubbed face aimed firmly at the busy future. It cares about what people think of it.