Improving the Means of Production

Taking the Flak

President Bok's 1979 annual report--which he devoted entirely to a critical evaluation of the Business School--left the faculty and administration there feeling somewhat beffuddled, shifting uneasily in the public gaze, wondering how to respond to the sudden attention. Few saw the report as overly negative; some even called it "a resounding endorsement" of the B-School's achievements. Most, however, saw it as recommending reforms or shifts of emphasis with which the B-School was already concerned.

Critique, endorsement, or simply a set of mild suggestions, Bok's well-publicized report took center-stage at the B-School this year: the questions it raised demanded an answer. That demand, however, unsettled many at the B-School, including the members of the senior faculty who, because of their enormous diversity, were incapable of putting forth a unified response to many of the issues Bok examined. Nevertheless, several groups attached to the B-School this year undertook the task of answering the president's report.

The first clear reaction to the report came from the Associates of Harvard Business School, an alumni group made up largely of infuential corporate executives. They published a report in January entitled "The Success of a Strategy." The document, as the title suggests, lent sweeping support to the programs and methods of the B-School. While it was carefully phrased to avoid the appearance of direct conflict with Bok, the alumni report did disagree with his criticisms on several points. The most notable difference of opinion came over the school's use of the case method of teaching.

The case method, a Socratic, learn-by-doing teaching technique based on case examples taken from real business situations, has been the object of much controversy over the past few years. Echoing the popular criticisms of the method, Bok recommended that its use be limited, and that more traditional lecture-style teaching be employed to teach basic concepts and mechanical skills.

The Associates' report praised the case method, calling it "the best possible training for analytic techniques." It stressed the method's flexibility and its importance as a touchstone for extensive research into problems of corporate management. "We have a very loyal and supportive alumni group," James L. Heskett, chairman of the Masters in Business Administration (MBA) program, explains. "I think President Bok would have been disturbed had they not responded the way they did." Still, proof though it may be of the B-School alumni's loyalty, their January report served merely as positive reinforcement. Originating outside the school, it was only a token voice of support in response to Bok's report.

Despite such wholehearted support from alumni, a strong response from within the school itself was delayed not only by mixed faculty opinion but also by the appointment of a new dean. Former Dean Lawrence E. Fouraker was reluctant to outline major changes so close to the end of his ten-year term; Dean John H. McArthur, who took office in January, refused comment on either the Bok report or the alumni report on the grounds that he was not yet familiar enough with his new position to address the issues clearly.

The central questions, then, remained unanswered by the B-School upper echelon for most of the year. It is clear, however, that Bok's report stirred, if not action, at least a great deal of thought at the B-School. The president's comments examined issues with which the school had long been concerned. He recommended, beyond the shift in emphasis away from the case method, an increased awareness of business ethics as an important part of the MBA curriculum, greater exposure for MBA candidates to business-government and business-society interfaces, a change in structure for the school's doctoral program, and an increased stress on faculty research.

The B-School had begun some form of evaluation of each of these matters before Bok issued his report. "We've been taking a good long look at the MBA program," Timothy W. Armour, assistant dean of the MBA program says, adding, "It's not because we have a disaster on our hands. It's just because it's time to do that again." Moreover, Heskett and Armour agree, the changes at the school in the next few years will be in response to challenges of the times, not the challenge of Bok's report.

"We have to keep up with the needs of modern management. And, just as importantly, we have to differentiate the Harvard Business School from all the others," Heskett says.

"I think that's part of why they don't want to give up the case method," Curt G. Viebranz, a second-year student and chairman of the Student Education Committee reasons. "The case method is part of what differentiates Harvard from Stanford and Wharton and Columbia. If we stopped stressing it, some people might see that as Harvard dropping back with the rest of the pack."

But if inflexibility with the case method is one way of keeping ahead of "the pack," flexibility in other areas has been equally important to B-School administrators. This year, several changes will be made throughout the school, and while they are not direct results of Bok's recommendations, school officials are quick to point out that most of the changes are in line with the spirit of his report.

The change of most immediate concern to incoming MBAs is the addition of a new required course to the first-year curriculum. The course, entitled "Human Resources Development," will deal with the development of human resource strategies to enhance worker satisfaction and productivity. This kind of course, Heskett says, addresses the business-social interface Bok spoke of.

Bok's report strongly suggested that professors teach courses outside their own disciplines in order to increase cross-area activity. Although Haskett explains that this recommendation--because it proposes the integration of distinct academic areas--doesn't conform to the existing organization of the B-School, the new course in the first-year curriculum will be taught by faculty members from both the Organizational Behavior and the Productions and Operations Management areas. Haskett adds that several other professors will also be teaching first-year courses outside their own areas. This increase in cross-area activity, he says, is in line with the general goals of Bok's report.

The question of ethics has also received some attention at the school this year. A school-wide poll on ethics, questioning students on the quality and quantity of ethical teaching at the school, showed an increase of student awareness of ethical business issues.

"Ethics is a subject that gets a sufficient amount of air time at the school," Viebranz says. "It appears implicitly in just about every course." Heskett concurs: "We've been trying to sensitize the faculty to the need to focus in on ethical issues. I don't think there's as much emphasis on it as the students want, yet, but the trends are encouraging."

The B-School hierarchy is also examining its second-year program. "It could be a 'new-look MBA,'" Heskett says. "There's some exciting course development and we're talking about some major restructuring." Specifically, Heskett says, the second-year program will be redesigned to allow a smoother transition from the academic to the business atmosphere.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes to be made across the river next year will be those in the doctoral program. A study of the program, under the leadership of Louis T. Wells Jr., professor of Business Administration, began before Bok released his report. And the recommendation of Wells' study, which the faculty adopted in December, will be enacted by Wells when he replaces Charles J. Christenson as chairman of the doctoral program next year.

Among the changes Wells will enact are a drastic reduction in the number of students admitted to the program, which would allow closer student-faculty relationships and the lowering of certain financial barriers to program entrance.

The principal goal of the doctoral program will remain to train students in the skills necessary to pursue academic careers in business education. The reforms, Wells's report says, are designed to help better the chances of Harvard graduates to get teaching jobs in high-level business schools including Harvard itself. They are also a response to the declining number of applicants to the doctoral program, which, the report states, may be due in part to "a decline in the reputation of the program at H.B.S."

Yet in the midst of some reform and a great deal of controversial discussion, the B-School stays as stable as it was before Bok's critical report. Perhaps one reason is that above all these reforms, taking active interest in the doctoral program, the MBA program, and the research division of the school alike, is the dean of the Business School, McArthur. He is almost universally liked and respected. "He's very approachable," says Viebranz, "Everybody is very, very high on the guy."

"He's certainly stirred the pot a great deal," Heskett says. "Of course, some of that sort of energy is to be expected from any new dean. But his interest is personal and informal. His only problem is that sometimes he gets so interested in what people are doing that he runs behind schedule. But it's for a good cause."

The cause, few will deny, is maintaining the reputation of the Harvard Business School--it comes up in conversation with school officials again and again. With MBA applications and numbers of businesses recruiting on campus both at an all-time high, the maintenance of a stellar reputation is all-important to the B-School administration.

Curriculum changes, program reforms, changes in emphasis and style are all aimed toward the same goal. And, certainly, President Bok's report was not the first or the most important stimulus toward the attainment of that goal. Instead, the Bok report merely lent an unusual and perhaps an uncomfortable volume to the B-School's quiet obsession with being the best.

Says Heskett: "It's our greatest challenge.