Business School

The Future of the MBA, in 3 Questions

April 19, 2017  • Claire Preisser

Given my job title, you would expect me to clear my calendar, put all devices on airplane mode, and dive into Duff McDonald’s “The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, The Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite.”

My work at the Aspen Institute seeks to change how business is taught, so to unleash a new generation of managers who can better align business decisions with the long-term health of society. And McDonald’s book is, by all accounts, a well-researched and provocative expose of Harvard Business School (HBS), arguably the most influential institution in the world we try to influence.

But I have a premonition that I won’t get too far in McDonald’s 578 pages.

It isn’t that McDonald’s treatise is all wrong. We concur fully on fundamentals: first, management education matters. Around the world, business is increasingly the degree-of-choice for our best and brightest, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Management educators are the under-appreciated “gatekeepers” in our free-market system—teaching the next generation of business leaders, consulting to the globe’s largest firms, and creating the new knowledge and theories that shape our firms, economies and very societies.

More importantly, we agree passionately with McDonald’s subtext: take any of our most critical social issues—inequality, climate, healthcare—and it isn’t hard to connect the dots back to real choices made by managers and investors—and to a management paradigm that externalizes costs, discounts the future, and equates short-term stock market performance with business success.

But McDonald falls victim to admiring the problem. As just one example, he spends much time detailing the deleterious effects of Michael Jensen’s hugely influential work on principal-agent theory. It is emotionally satisfying to see an elite institution like HBS cast as a sort of evil empire, with Professor Jensen as a sort of nerdy Darth Vader in academic robes.

The truth is that while McDonald has been busy criticizing HBS—and the system of management education which it represents—business schools have moved on.

At the Aspen Institute, we identify and support the innovators in business education, and we see much to be hopeful about. MBAs don’t exactly inspire sympathy and more than a few readers will celebrate the come-uppance McDonald delivers—but we would be better off if we channeled our creativity instead into articulating new ideas that will prompt real change in how business is taught.

Here are three questions to jump-start action in the MBA programs of today:

1. Can millennials chart a new course for business education?

We know anecdotally that, over the last decade, there has been a sea-change in the aspirations that students carry with them into b-school classrooms. Many focus on finding “purposeful” work; they have deep interest in fields like impact investing, sustainability and social entrepreneurship; they raise provocative questions in the classroom about the track-record of blue-chip firms. What could we learn if we looked more closely at the behaviors they model?

To build his case, McDonald cites our own research, which surveyed MBA students at highly-ranked business schools and demonstrated real attitudinal shifts over the course of their education.

In our widely-cited finding, we saw that students enter MBA schools thinking like customers and exit thinking like profit-maximizers.

We are pleased this finding is still so sticky—but this research was published in 2002. The average student pursuing an MBA today was just starting middle school.

What would new research reveal about how millennials are shaping—and being shaped—by business education?

2. Will b-school classrooms give managers tools to act on their highest aspirations for capitalism?

At Aspen we seek out and celebrate scholars who teach their students in ways that tap deeply-held aspirations to “make a difference.” Just last month, we put out a call for teaching that “challenges conventional approaches to private enterprise and capitalism—and put forward a new narrative for how business can create better jobs and a more equitable and sustainable world.” We received 150 nominations, more than four times the number of nominations we received the previous year.

Walk into the classrooms of today and the “greed is good” mantra of the 80’s seems as useful as an overhead projector.

Instead we find scholars pushing students to think deeply about how over the course of their careers they can shape business decisions and protocols to make the world a better place. You’ll see Rebecca Henderson at HBS itself, challenging current students in “Reimaging Capitalism: Business and Big Problems;” Andy Hoffman pushing his students at the University of Michigan on the cutting edge of sustainability thinking; or Nora Silver at U.C. Berkeley, who examines social movements, from Indian independence to Black Lives Matter, as a window into leading change. And the list goes on.

McDonald might be at his best when he argues that Jensen’s work gave license for managers to act on base motivations. But, as McDonald himself notes, Jensen’s influence is waning. What might we see if we looked at a more complete catalogue of exemplars? And how can these good ideas get even more space, more institutional support, and more “oxygen” to flourish?

3. What are students actually learning?

A former colleague enrolled at a highly regarded MBA program texted me after the first class with her school’s rock-star finance professor. The professor told the class that his was the most important course in the program. For all the real change we witness and powerful examples of high-quality teaching we capture in the MBA canon, finance remains the juggernaut. If we are not careful, the lesson of the finance classroom sets up a powerful and countervailing message to the message of a sustainability classroom.

And so, instead of asking “what is HBS teaching?” we need to understand “what are students learning?” And that requires everyone at the table: committed faculty, deans, funders, recruiters, and prominent alumni who will do the real work of making change.

As McDonald rightly emphasizes, business schools shape the attitudes and world view of an incredibly influential group of actors in our capitalist system. Let’s make sure tomorrow’s “golden passport” holders are true stewards of both business and society.



Claire Preisser is Associate Director at the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program (Aspen BSP), where she oversees its management education work. Her husband is a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Additionally, Nitin Nohria, Dean at Harvard Business School, serves on Aspen BSP’s advisory board.