B-School: Pragmatism and Professionalism

At the College, the Business School has a lousy image. B-School students are considered Babbitts and conformists. At the Business School, on the other hand, the College has a lousy image. Undergraduates are thought to be dreamers and shaggy dogs.

The fact of the matter is that more than the Charles River separates the the two institutions. They are worlds apart, hardly speaking the same language. The terms of either community cannot be applied to try to understand the other. That is why it is hard to describe the College to B-School students and the B-School to undergraduates.

It is best for undergraduates not to think of the B-School as a "school," nor of the the students as "students." School for undergraduates is a place of academic orientation for intellectual and self-development, and fun.

School for B-School students, on the other hand, is a professional training ground. It is a place of practical orientation where the students don't even pretend to be intellectuals. They don't allude to Plato or Shakespeare, but they do like to get involved in the analysis of managerial problems. They are training to become professionals and their focus is on careers. They are not here to introspect but to improve managerial skills. Many have families to support; so in a sense, school is their livelihood. Motivated and disciplined, they study hard against the heavy workload which requires participation in four hours of classes and upwards of six hours of study each day. Daily work is more important than final exams. People rarely miss classes or fail to prepare their work.

My first year at the B-School last year was a lot like boot camp. We were flooded with work, often to the point of frustration. There is never enough time to be thorough. No reading periods are offered before final exams at the end of each of the three quarters.

In the first year, everybody takes the same courses. Fear of failure is a prime source of motivation at this time. In the second and last year, students elect courses in different areas, and work on research theses. The boot camp aspect falls off and the experience becomes determined by the courses and standards of excellence which students choose for themselves.

The first year is highlighted by two things particularly: the section and the case study method. They are two reasons why B-School differs from all other institutions of learning, especially the College.

Each class has roughly 700 members. From the beginning, these people are assigned to seven sections, lettered A through G. Each section is constituted so that it receives a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and age levels.

My own section had 95 members. We met together in the same classes all year. We had numerous social get-togethers, and section teams were organized for intramural athletics. From the outset, sectionmates tended to congregate in Kresge dinning hall and the dorms. Many sectionmates were also roommates. In short, we got to know each other extremely well, and to identify with our section.

Some students consider the section a narrowing experience--relatively few people know members of other sections, for example-- but I disagree. In my section, as in most, only about a third of the 95 people came directly from college. (The average age of the entering class was 24.) The others ranged up to the age of 40. The oldest was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and there was also a 31-year-old lieutenant commander in the Navy, who with the other officers, was pursuing his M.B.A. while on active duty.

Our section included a member of the Israeli government, as well as aspiring administrators from India, Japan, Madagascar, South Africa, Peru, Canada, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and France. In addition, we had three lawyers, a Peace Corps veteran, an ordained minister and a former Princeton football captain.

Most of the people were active in student organizations in college, many as elected class leaders. Their college majors may be broken down as follows (the percentages are roughly the same for the entire class): 29 per cent in engineering; 26 in social sciences; 17 in fine arts and humanities; 13 in business administration; nine in physical sciences; and six in other categories. All 50 states, 25 foreign countries, and nearly 200 colleges are represented in our whole class. Harvard has the highest representation of any college, with 70 men. One-third of the students are married, and three girls are enrolled in the class.

To know and match wits against individuals of such varied experience has made for no ordinary education. Our section even made a collective self-study to try to understand how we developed our particular norms and group character. We are going our separate ways this year, and the section will be less cohesive, but there will be a lingering group identification.

The case study method means many things to the B-school student; analysis, problem-solving, making decisions, taking stands, proposing action steps, speaking out in class. This method is more than the study of problem situations; it is a system in which there are neither lectures nor domination by professors. Unlike the case study method at the Law School, where professors guide discussions closely, B-School students are given almost free rein.

A typical section discussion begins with the professor saying, "Mr. Smith, will you present today's case for us?" Smith will state what he thinks the problem or problems are in the case, give his analysis, and propose action steps to rectify the situation. Smith has the floor, and can talk for as long as he wants. Afterwards, the professor will call on other students who may wish to disagree with Smith or guide the discussion along different lines.

Each class runs one hour and 20 minutes. With 95 students working through a case, discussion is lively, often heated. Because there are no right or wrong answers--but rather an endless number of possible approaches--a student can take a provocative position. He will have to defend it by argument, and use every skill to survive the rebuttal.

"Therefore, Mr. Smith?..."

The professor witholds value judgments and lets the students perform, but may fire questions to make people sharpen their views. "Therefore, Mr. Smith?... So what do you propose to do about it? Are you going to hire more men? If so, how many and at what salary?..." Analysis is rigorous. It should consider as many problem areas as possible in each case; what is more, it should be followed up with proposals for concrete action.

Students never know when they will be called on or when a quiz will be given. Day after day, they must take positions and speak out in class--classroom performance is most important at the B-School.

There are three cases a day, on the average. Sometimes one can read a case, not see any particular problems, and fail to develop a meaningful analysis. Partly for this reason, the school encourages the students to form study groups--usually of four to ten members--to pool ideas on the various cases each night. I have found this inefficient at times, but usually helpful. The study groups and sections emphasize the school's approach, that students learn best from each other through group participation, rather than from lectures and professors.


The material studied in the first year covers a great range. Students get an overall view of management which helps them to refine their focus in subsequent years. We were exposed to the basic areas of business: accounting, finance, production, and marketing, as well as the newer administrative techniques, such as computer methodology and statistical analysis. Our Gen Ed Ahf equivalent in the first year is called "Written Analysis of Cases," and demands biweekly papers which are due on Saturday evenings and graded by girls recently graduated from college.

Other courses in the first year include, for example, "Human Behavior in Organizations" and "Planning and the Business Environment." This last course deals with the overlap of business and society at large. The issues studied include union controversies, civil rights in relation to personnel and advertising practices, ethics in advertising, business-government relations, the image of business in America, public responsibility of the manager, business abroad, industrial participation in foreign aid, and other topics of broad concern. This emphasis on the interplay between business and society underlines the purpose and aspiration of the Business School: to prepare students for management responsibility in its largest sense.

The one required course in second year is Business Policy, which aims at synthesis of all aspects bearing on management planning and strategic decision-making.

Harvard University is an institution of great diversity. The College and the Business School serve as examples of the differences that can be found within the community. Both prepare people for society, one on a personal level, the other more pragmatically. The two schools are not identical, nor are they mutually exclusive. Often they fail to understand each other. As one who has lived on both sides of the Charles, I view them as complementary