Harvard B School: Outmoded Or At The Head Of Its Class?

Our July 19 cover story on Harvard business school generated an unusually heavy volume of mail, much of it from graduates. While not every letter addressed directly the question of whether the B-school is outmoded, writers defending the school outnumbered those criticizing it by a margin of 2 to 1.

Your story is incomplete and inaccurate. Change has been one of the few constants in HBS's history. Over 50% of the concepts and content in the MBA program are different from 20 years ago, and more than 75% of the teaching materials have changed in the past decade. Half the electives have been conceived and developed in the past 10 years.

Among many important areas in which the article misses the mark, three stand out:

-- On the international front, it neglects to mention the path-breaking required first-year course "Business, government, and the international economy."

-- As BUSINESS WEEK wrote in an Apr. 6, 1992, story on ethics at HBS--but failed to report this time--HBS's commitment to ethics extends far beyond the required first-year module. Cases that raise important ethical issues are discussed in about 45 other classes in the first-year curriculum. In addition, five electives in ethics and corporate responsibility are offered in the second year.

-- The school's six electives in entrepreneurship are exceptionally popular with students. In addition, 25% of second-year MBAs are involved in field studies on new ventures, which also require presentations to senior executives. Not surprisingly, more than one-third of our graduates are running their own businesses 20 years after graduation.

The courses in international business, ethics, and entrepreneurship are manifestations of the continuing creation of intellectual capital and new fields of study at HBS. As a result, other schools and organizations worldwide adopt several million cases and other teaching materials from HBS annually.

Thomas R. Piper

Senior Associate Dean for

Educational Programs

Harvard Business School


It's nice to see you finally realize one of America's sacred cows isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. But your analysis of Harvard B-school missed a couple of reasons for its problems.

First, unlike other business schools in the U.S., Harvard has a strong preference for hiring its own PhD graduates as faculty. Most B- schools won't hire their own PhDs because they reckon the lack of new blood produces inbreeding and myopia.

Second, there is an informal rule at Harvard that professors can use only material written by Harvard faculty in their MBA classes. As far as they are concerned, the rest of the academic world doesn't exist. This institutional arrogance may explain why Harvard is no longer at the cutting edge of management education.

Charles W.L. Hill

Professor of Management

& Organization

University of Washington


Alumni giving to Harvard business school exceeds $15 million annually. Participation rates for 5th and 10th reunion classes are in the 40%-to-50% range; for 25th reunion classes, they often exceed 75%. That extraordinary, unmatched level of financial support suggests that HBS alumni are very satisfied with the school's past performance and current direction.

Harvard MBAs typically receive 60% more job offers and starting salaries 40% above the averages reported for the 20 B-schools that BUSINESS WEEK ranks as the nation's best. The employers, here and abroad, which are Harvard B-school's ultimate customers, must, therefore, also be very satisfied. Harvard today cannot be complacent but certainly need not be apologetic.

John J. Nevin, '52

Former Chairman

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.

Northfield, Ill.

There seems to be a persistent public misconception about the prestigious academic top spot almost unconsciously awarded to Harvard. This notion continues in the face of BUSINESS WEEK surveys awarding Northwestern University the first-place honors hands down. There seems to be a certain mystique unsubstantiated by the basic facts and "customers" of the universities.

Hugh J. Meeter

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Your article didn't crack the case. The school recognizes the need for continuous improvement to succeed. Congratulate Dean [John H.] McArthur. Don't impugn the school's reputation. A caption of "An American institution redesigning itself" would have been fairer than "An American institution in need of reform."

Most off the mark was the misrepresentation of HBS as a dysfunctional competitive jungle. Our experience five years ago suggested otherwise. The grading system was an appropriate parallel to the competitive pressures of business. It can be intimidating if one lets it be. In our section, 91 students chose to work as a team to ensure that everyone--international and domestic--could succeed. Judging from our recent reunion, they have.

Daniel F. O'Brien, '88


Richard D. Stamberger, '88


Your assertion that Harvard is a bit more Darwinistic than many of its competitors is fact. I would, however, venture to say that the climate inside the school is not unlike that of many globally competitive companies such as Ford and Motorola, where spirited debate and controversy spur creativity.

Ken Marzinsky, '92

Rocky River, Ohio

When I was a female student at the school, I never even thought about whether the protagonists in the cases were men or women. Yet the underrepresentation of women in case studies was mentioned no less than three times in your article. Come on! It would be scary if the school responded to your criticism.

Shelley Goldberg, '94

New York

The criticism that cases do not feature enough female role models is true, particularly given the number of successful women leaders who happen to be Harvard B-school alums, such as Ellen Marram, former president of Nabisco Biscuit Co. Too bad BUSINESS WEEK didn't choose to include any of those women on its list of high-powered grads.

Harvard is said to rest on its laurels and produce graduates who do not have the tools to help move American business back to the cutting edge. It's funny, then, that so many graduates are founders or key players at U.S. growth companies--retailers Staples and Mothers Work and satellite-launcher Orbital Sciences are some that come to mind.

Barbara E. Miller, '92


As one who has known Dean McArthur as a student and as an alumnus, your insinuation that he and Jim Cash [chairman of the MBA program] do not serve their constituency in a hands-on, concerned fashion is both unfortunate and unfair. As a matter of fact, 5 of our 11 management-committee members attended the business school. Fortunately, they all have sufficient humility to know that they can't deal with any problem without having the experience up front.

Student arrogance and bloated salaries to inexperienced graduates are issues. John, Jim, and their team will address these issues as they have countless others.

Thomas G. Sternberg, '73

Chairman and CEO

Staples Inc.

Framingham, Mass.

McGill University Professor Henry Mintzberg has contributed as much or more to management thinking in the past 25 years than Peter Drucker, Mike Porter, Kenichi Ohmae, J. Brian Quinn (or Tom Peters). Yet he comes from north of the border, so we don't hear very much about him. In fact, America's leading business magazine, in its cover story on Harvard business school, couldn't even figure out how to spell his name: It should be Mintzberg, not Mitzberg.

Tom Peters

Palo Alto, Calif.

The real beauty of the case-method approach is that it forces the student to grapple with extremely complex and difficult management issues. Lectures are given where appropriate, but nothing is spoon-fed to the students at Harvard. Maybe some students gripe, but they are the minority. Most love the challenge, since it mirrors the real world: Most managers face ambiguous, difficult, challenging situations. Cases are laid out to be ambiguous, difficult, and challenging.

Steve Farrell, '94

Belmont, Mass.

On behalf of all Harvard B-school alumni, I apologize profusely for the decline of American business. We probably didn't get enough fiber in our diets.

Leonard Dick, '90

Santa Monica, Calif.

Your story has a serious omission in the criteria you used for grading business schools. A major challenge is to educate business leaders to capitalize on the exponential change in technology. For example, by the year 2010, there will be yet another thousandfold improvement in computational power. We believe business schools should emphasize the implications of technological change for the engineering and manufacturing of products, processes, and ultimately for determining the competitive position of business.

Robert S. Sullivan

Dean, Graduate School of

Industrial Administration

Stephen W. Director

Dean, Carnegie Institute of Technology

Raj Reddy

Dean, School of Computer Science

Carnegie Mellon University


Students, American businesses, and other B-schools eagerly await Harvard's overdue renaissance for the future it augurs for us all.

Nanette Fondas

University of California

Riverside, Calif.