Magazine Critiques B-School

The Harvard Business School, arguably the nation's most powerful, is in danger of becoming outmoded, an article in Business Week magazine charged this week.

The magazine was critical marks of the school's programs in international business education, teamwork, diversity, ethics and technology. The student body and the faculty, both long considered to be the top of the line, received high praise.

The criticisms of the school centered around a major theme--that the Business School is being left behind by a slowness to change and adapt. But in an interview last month, Dean of the Business School John H. McArthur disagreed.

He said he has seen enormous change at the school during the past 15 years, mostly brought about by the changing outside world. "You have to change, because the half-life, the knowledge base that they work from is so short," McArthur said. "You could go across all the fields here and say the same thing...there's an enormous rate of change. And at the level of the institution it also has to keep changing because the markets we serve keep changing."

The article, though, said that Harvard Business School has changed its curriculum very little in the past 30 years, saying that only about 20 of the case studies used feature women as main protagonists and only 10 percent of first-year case studies deal with the international market.

"It's very, very conservative--it doesn't change easily," Henry Mitzberg, a management professor at McGill University quoted in the article, said yesterday.


The article especially criticized Harvard's method of case study teaching, where students are given case studies of specific corporations regarding certain matters and asked to find solutions to problems. The approach, unique to Harvard among top business schools, discourages teamwork and promotes superficiality, the article said.

Mitzberg said in the article that the success of the Harvard method was becoming the downfall of American business.

"People know how to be very glib, very quick," Mitzberg said. "Harvard trains people to know companies very superficially."

Business School graduate Warren Alpert, a self-made millionaire entrepreneur who served on the Business School's Board of Associates for 20 years, also criticized the depth of Harvard business education.

"There were elements of truth in the article," Alpert said. "Part of the truth is that Business Schools graduates very often think they're equipped to run major businesses when in fact they are not."

He was not without criticism of the piece, however. "My overall reaction is that the best way to get circulation for any magazine is to refer to the Harvard Business School. It's like catnip for the reader, especially if the news is bad," Alpert said.

Ethics were another area sharply criticized in the Businessweek article. The school was given $20 million in 1987 by graduate John Shad to fund a new ethics program.

Although a module of nine ethics sessions has been added during McArthur's 13-year term, it is non-graded.

And the school has suffered some public lapses in ethics--such as when a student was denied a diploma in June after his indictment on insider trading charges.

McArthur said he didn't believe, though, that the incidents had anything to do with the ethics program--or lack thereof--at the Business School. "Most people...would like to do the right thing most of the time," he said. "It's not aimed at taking moral cripples and somehow remaking them at the school. I think you either arrive with some values or you don't."

Mitzberg also said he thought the role of school as an ethics teacher must be limited. "The idea of teaching ethics is a joke--people look at what you do, not what you say," he said. "Harvard wants people to get ahead, so it teaches [them] aggressiveness...but it doesn't teach unethical behavior.