How to Fix MBAs? No Easy Answers

Last Updated Apr 13, 2009 11:13 PM EDT

In the fallout from the current economic crisis, a lot of pointing fingers are targeting business schools. One hot topic is whether or not MBA programs bear the burden of responsibility for the ethical lapses of some of the leaders they have produced. The debate has ranged from accusing b-schools of creating "Monsters" to flat-out stating that the MBAs are not to blame.

"Are we turning out criminals? No," says Dr. Michael McManus (pictured), president of the California International Business University, to whom I spoke recently regarding the current state of MBA programs. "Do MBAs directly contribute to the problem? It's a debate."

Stating that "there's enough blame to go around," McManus feels that MBA programs must try to figure out the role they've played in the meltdown of the financial sector.

"Traditional MBA programs teach students to outsmart the competitor, which can lead to outsmarting the customer and investor. Finance professors teach wealth-creation-a-go-go. There's a connection [between the current crisis] and MBA practices," McManus says.

Can ethics courses repair the problem?
Many schools are stepping up their ethics offerings in hopes of better training graduates to make more principled decisions. Stanford, for example, is focusing on classes that create "an experience that helps students discover and defend their values," according to Dean Robert Joss. Stanford will also examine unethical behaviors, in seminars such as "Understanding Cheating."

While McManus feels that ethics is an important component of an MBA education, he also points out that many a corporate criminal has come through ethics courses. Various schools have also suggested that graduating MBAs should sign a business equivalent to a Hippocratic Oath, but McManus is skeptical that this will fix the problem.

"Some great institutions think signing a pledge is an answer. I don't think so. While it's great for PR, if people are going to be tempted [to behave unethically], it isn't going to matter whether or not they signed a pledge five or ten years ago."

Fixing the MBA
So what will fix MBA programs' flaws and restore their good reputations? According to McManus, there are no easy answers, but encouraging debate in order to identify the key issues business schools must address may be a good start.

"MBA programs are facing a serious moment that needs serious attention," says McManus. "We need to have an active and open debate and discussion. I'd like to see everyone get involved. We have to find counterpoints, not just spokespeople from traditional MBA schools. If there are solutions, they will come out of these discussions."

Harvard Business School has already taken a step in this direction, running a series of articles on its blog titled "How to Fix Business Schools," in which various experts, MBA graduates and current candidates weigh in on the issues and propose a number of solutions.

Bloomberg.com reports that HBS is also conducting a case study on itself, utilizing the same criteria it employs to evaluate corporations in crisis. The task force in charge of the case study will present their findings to faculty on May 27, and will possibly use the results as a springboard to discuss curriculum changes. One silver lining of this volatile climate: b-schools may well find new means of enhancing the MBA experiences of their current and future graduates.

Photo courtesy of California International Business University

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.