The State of HBS
Changing the curriculum is not enough
The end of this school year will mark the one-year anniversary for Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, and the four-year anniversary of the tempest that swept him to the helm of one of the University’s most prominent professional schools. Nohria took charge at a time when HBS faced charges that its graduates played an outsize role in facilitating the financial crisis, and when the positive social value of an HBS education was in question. As Cabot House Master Rakesh Khurana told the Wall Street Journal in February 2011, “It's not clear what the purpose of business education is. It's got to be more than high-paying jobs and more than a place to build elite social networks."
Nohria has since been a vocal advocate for business schools that teach “judgment” skills as well as traditional analytical skills. Thus, in January, HBS announced that it would considerably retool its existing M.B.A. program to include a new set of course requirements that stress teamwork and ethics. As of now, one out of the ten required courses, Leadership and Corporate Accountability, deals with questions of ethics.
True, a short-term review of Nohria’s tenure is somewhat facetious. Institutional change is not easy to effect, let alone at a place like Harvard in which so many have a stake. It would be fairer to rate Nohria and the HBS leadership at ten years out rather than one. In that sense, then, the question that the aspiring managers across the river should ask is this: If HBS continues on its present path, what will be its projected social value in ten years?
Frankly, we are not certain it will be much more than it is now. Firstly, HBS has yet to articulate that social impact is part of its educational mission, and, additionally, the change HBS seeks to make cannot be effected without changing the composition of its student body.
Like all of Harvard’s professional schools, the business school should be a tool to stimulate social cohesion rather than individual advancement. This seems obvious—why invest institutional resources in a professional school that actively or passively hurts society by funneling its resources for the benefit of a chosen few? However, HBS’s rhetoric regarding its expectations of its graduates is appallingly neutral when considered on the spectrum of Harvard schools in general.
The Graduate School of Education writes that its mission is: “To prepare leaders in education and to generate knowledge to improve student opportunity, achievement, and success.” The Medical School articulates that what it means to be a Harvard doctor is “innovating, educating, discovering, serving.” The Law School says that “public service [is] at the heart of the experience.” Even the College, which largely suffices with being a mechanism for social advancement by reaching out across the world to the most talented potential undergraduates from a plurality of backgrounds, writes, regarding its outcomes, that, “Harvard students are very well prepared for service to society.” In contrast, “service” is conspicuously absent from the rhetoric and mentality with which HBS markets itself to prospective students. In this sense, it will be difficult for HBS to work toward increasing its social value if it never explicitly sets this as a school-wide goal and positions itself this way to prospective students.
Along these lines, the best way to promote the M.B.A. with social value is to admit students who believe that business should have a positive social impact, and who show promise of using new management skills to facilitate hard skills. As a professional school, HBS still produces mostly consultants and financiers; 34 percent of 2010 graduates went into the financial services industry, and 24 percent went into consulting. By the same token, only 23 percent went into the healthcare, nonprofit/government, entertainment/media, and technology industries combined. And these statistics are even more notable when one considers that only 14 percent of the HBS Class of 2012 comes from the financial services industry to begin with, and only 22 percent comes from a consulting background.
HBS continues to educate leaders of a very specific subset of the American economy, and in this context, changing the curriculum is a small detail . A handful of required courses cannot moderate the instincts cultivated in many of the preceding industries that dominate HBS classrooms.
Instead, HBS should look to educate students who will use their business educations for the best ends. This means seeking to admit more students from backgrounds in industries such as technology, healthcare, and media who will use their skills for the benefit of society at large.
HBS is already starting to do this with its 2 + 2 program, which accepts undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds to HBS on the condition that they do two years of work experience first. This program seeks to engage students who might have otherwise not considered a business education, such as students from technology or healthcare backgrounds. In a testament to its ability to temper the otherwise-homogenous aspirations of the business school student body, HBS is expanding the 2 + 2 application process; there are now four different rounds of applications and decisions to which rising juniors or seniors can apply.
This is a definite step in the right direction, as the business school should be more than just a finishing school for consultants and financiers. Business is the operating hand of economics—in layman’s terms, the mechanism by which things get done in our society. In that sense, the business school's role on our campus is particularly important, and it should continue to take special care to facilitate the public good. To that end, emphasizing fair play through class is a notable but inadequate step toward accomplishing this goal. More must be done.
Two weeks ago, Nohria spoke in the “Conversations with Kirkland” series, and stressed that HBS students should think globally and aim to be global leaders. In one of his first addresses to the HBS community last year, he said many of the same things, asking, “How can we best bring the world to HBS? How can we best bring HBS to the world?” But before we bring the Business School to the wider world, we must ensure that its mission and its students are committed to serving that world well.