Business Schools Are Stuck in a Self-Reinforcing Bubble

It’s fashionable for some business schools to lament their affiliations with universities, even going so far as to call for complete separation. But striving for a split is wrongheaded. Independence would hurt, not help, most MBA programs.

Many business schools go to great lengths to divorce themselves from their parent universities. Some set themselves up as legally independent entities. Others, while proudly carrying university surnames, distance themselves by creating geographic and institutional barriers.

One fellow dean described his parent university to me as “a thorn in my side.” An economics professor at the University of Buckingham in the U.K. cited the dead hand of university administration in his call to “take business schools out of universities.”

The complaints sound bold, but the backlash against the university structure is unsound. Business education is far richer when business schools fully engage with their universities, rather than stand apart and wall off their curricula and students. The case for engagement, beyond token joint programs or faculty appointments, lies in two deficiencies found in most MBA programs.

First, while students must be grounded in the common MBA core of finance, accounting, and other courses, opportunities in business can only be understood by those with some appreciation of topics far beyond the standard business curriculum. For the past few years, I’ve asked chief executive officers and other business leaders: “What forces will transform business in 25 years?” My experience is that they quickly converge on a set of topics that business schools don’t teach: demographic change; natural resource constraints; technological trends like big data; and such considerations as equity and justice that will all alter the rules of the game under which business operates.

If these topics are so important to business, why don’t we teach them? In part because we are focused on making sure that our students are “job-ready,” which makes us as myopic as the companies we criticize in our classrooms and case studies. More fundamental, business schools generally don’t have the internal expertise to deal with these topics because our faculties are bound by the disciplinary silos that define virtually all schools. While we may occasionally bring in experts to deal with these topics in electives, none will ever permeate the core of our faculties or curricula.

Fortunately for most of us, the expertise to give students firm grounding in these topics literally sits across the campus, where demographers, gerontologists, city planners, scientists, and engineers abound. While it’s naïve to think that you can simply “invite them into the classroom,” with a bit of nuance we can find ways to meaningfully benefit from them. At Oxford, for example, a new, required course that’s also made available to alumni through a digital platform brings the university into the business classroom. Experts in varied disciplines provoke us by laying out global challenges and opportunities—the aging populations of the U.S., Europe, China and Japan, for instance—and then we (students, alumni, and faculty) have to figure out the implications for business.

There is a second reason to engage with a university: hubris. Business schools tend to operate in bubbles. These are communities solely focused on business in which business executives with the same values are paraded in front of students. Experiences are socially engineered so that students can spend their entire time without meaningfully interacting with anyone outside business.

This simply encourages disconnected thinking. In contrast, at Oxford, our business students benefit from being confronted with the skepticism and confusion that students studying medicine, law, philosophy, history, or engineering may have about business. We are particularly fortunate in that the unique collegiate structure at Oxford, reinforced through our curriculum, literally forces this interaction: MBA students mingle with others over meals, living arrangements, social events, and sports and then are challenged in the classroom by ideas from the sciences and humanities.

Most family relations are complex, and the university-business school relationship is no different. While emancipation may seem like the right short-term answer, business schools and their students are better off if they become a more active part of their university families.

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