Paul Danos, Dean Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
I gave a speech shortly before the holidays to the AMBA annual dinner in London which I thought readers of this blog might find interesting. The speech itself is a bit long, so here is a condensed version:
A few years ago, when the economy was struggling and jobs were less plentiful than they have been recently, it was fashionable to write articles questioning the value of the MBA and predicting the demise of modern business education. Journalists – and even some professors – made bold claims about the problems with business education, then erroneously drew casual links from those issues to the downward trends in b-school applications and salary stagnation.
Today, it is tempting to reject their negative conclusions on the same grounds – after all, applications are up for over 2/3 of all business schools and the demand for graduating MBAs is through the roof. But I believe we must resist that temptation. Instead, we should take a moment to consider these criticisms head-on, and to use them to gain greater insight into today’s business schools. Whether you are a business school Dean studying the current state of affairs at MBA programs or a prospective student weighing your big decision, it can be worthwhile indeed to consider and rebut the various arguments against the modern MBA .
These criticisms fall into five major arguments:
• First, that faculty are not managerial enough.
• Second, that faculty are not scientific enough.
• Third, that faculty are not student-centered enough.
• Fourth, that a focus on rankings has distracted faculty from important scholarly work.
• Finally, that the return on investment for an MBA is negative.
The first group of critics claims that today’s faculty are not teaching actual management techniques, partly because their students do not have enough experience to absorb them. In short, these critics worry that young MBA students are stuck studying dense and arcane topics that will not give them the real tools they need to become managers. I believe that this argument shortchanges the typical MBA student. In reality, average students at many programs are not 22 or 23, but more like 27 or 28 – and their time in business school is an important complement to many years of work experience, not a substitute. Our programs are the first step on a fast track to leadership and no one is claiming that our graduates are going directly into the CEO position from the get go.
The second group believes that business school faculty are not scientific enough. They argue that faculty research is not based on established scientific methods and that much of ‘management theory’ is merely opinion. These critics are obviously not reading our many fine research journals that rigorously evaluate findings and methods before publication. Frankly, their criticisms apply more to some of the less-scholarly popular business best-sellers than actual published research, the majority of which meets every scholarly test.
The third group of critics claims that faculty are not student-centered enough, and it is a criticism to which school administrators should pay particular attention. In Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, Harry Lewis shows a strong example of how a school can fail to articulate ideals for future leaders. However, I believe that leading schools are addressing the very issues he raises. Top schools make an explicit effort to define what a good education is by carefully establishing common values, a core curriculum, and an engaged and caring faculty – and this serves as a powerful example for the rest of the education industry. I know that at Tuck, we deeply value our school’s soul and we respect and care about each and every student and alumnus.
The fourth group of critics argues that business school rankings are a distraction that is diverting the efforts of faculty from quality to public relations. Like most deans, I have experienced moments of frustration over an individual ranking or two. But the truth is that I see no evidence of dedicated and talented faculty actually being diverted from their research or teaching by these rankings, and sometimes the rankings can do a good job of keeping us “on our toes” when it comes to being reasonably student-focused. And to be completely honest, I believe that on balance the rankings do generally put schools in roughly the right places (although it can be said that only the “top fifty” are focused on, which can be unfair to others).
Finally, a group argues that there is little practical value from an MBA because it does not advance careers. This claim falls apart quickly under scrutiny. At Tuck the average US student nearly triples his/her salary and the average non-US student has more than a five-fold increase and this general pattern of return on investment can be seen at all the top schools, to say nothing of the amazing new career opportunities that an MBA education gives.
Many of these criticisms are misguided, others are oversimplification, and some are probably just an attempt to garner headlines. But in each argument there are important lessons – and whether you are a Dean trying to set the direction for your program or a potential student deciding which school is best for you, it is better to take them on in substance than to dismiss them simply because all the trend lines are now moving in the right direction.