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Cents and Sensibility

Why Oxford Refused Millions for a Business School

By Joshua A. Katzin

With Harvard still deeply entrenched in its massive fund-raising campaign, one can only wonder what its response would be to the kind of gift that was recently offered to, and then rejected by, Oxford University. The dons of Oxford refused to accept $34 million presented by Saudi billionaire Wafic Said for the founding of a new business school. I guess when you're the oldest university in the English-speaking world, you can get away with such ingratitude.

The gift was refused because it was to be used to enshrine the study of business management in a majestic new school destined, as Oxford administrators assert, to become a major center for management research in Europe. The Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, quickly decried the decision as based on an elitist bias described as "an old British disease that lies behind much of our industrial decline into not-so-genteel poverty."

We must assume that Harvard would have chosen differently. First, the Harvard Business School (HBS) already enjoys the plush palatial environment which Oxford seems wary of creating. Second, the institutionalized study of business management is fully accepted among American universities. In fact, United States business schools graduate some 80,000 MBA's each year. If Said was incensed at the refusal of his generosity, HBS should be even more insulted--Oxford was explicitly denying the legitimacy of such an institution within the academy.

At this point, some will proudly declare that the difference between Harvard and Oxford's approaches to the study of business is a triumph of American pragmatism over British snobbery. Such people will quickly grab the nearest copy of Democracy in America and begin a grandiloquent dissertation on the free-thinking spirit that distinguishes the United States from its monarchical ancestry.

Despite the appeal of such a simple explanation, as well as the patriotic sentiments that underlie it, the reasons for Oxford's decision may be more subtle. It should be noted that Oxford currently accepts students pursuing a masters degree in business education. In addition to the first class of MBA students who will graduate this year, Oxford also has initiated an undergraduate program for the joint study of economics and management. If British intellectual elitism makes the discipline of business studies an anathema, why do such programs exist? Apparently, Oxford is averse to the concept of a business school, not to the study of business itself.

To understand why this is the case, we must examine more closely the philosophies of undergraduate education at these schools. At first glance, the stance that Oxford has taken may come as a surprise given its approach to undergraduate education. The British system stresses specialization within a single discipline. In addition, no previous undergraduate experience is required as a prerequisite for the study of such fields as law and medicine. One might expect that, in a school which stresses a more narrowly focused curriculum and even the study of pre-professional disciplines, the institutional study of business would be well at home.

The type of liberal arts education taught here seems to be at odds with the study of a subject as pragmatic as business, even at the graduate level. At Harvard, the breadth of subjects in the undergraduate curriculum need not have any direct consequence for one's career. The implication is that the practical aspects of one's education are not necessarily the most crucial. A triumph of intellectual curiosity over more pragmatic sensibilities, American students spend four years (British undergraduates only three) studying subjects without having to specialize in the fields that they will pursue.

Ironically, it seems that the liberal arts focus of Harvard College is precisely the cause of the level of professionalism that predominates much of campus culture. Since a Harvard education need not make reference to one's professional goals, students make a stark distinction between their intellectual pursuits and career paths. The impracticality of students' educational experience often leads to greater pragmatism once that stage of life comes to a close.

In contrast, the more focused British education does not imply as pronounced a distinction between one's studies and one's future pursuits. Rather than fostering a purely pragmatic pre-professionalism, the British system suggests a continuum between one's college years and life afterward. In fact, a lower percentage of Oxford graduates enter the business world immediately after graduation than do Harvard students.

The stress on liberal arts education in American institutions like the College fosters the type of post-graduate pragmatism that a business school embodies. We are allowed to be impractical as undergraduates so long as we are all the more practical in our career choices. Oxford acknowledges a certain amount of specialization initially, but is trying to fight the tide of careerism in the long-run. Strangely enough, the school that allows undergraduates to study business refuses to erect an edifice designated exclusively for that topic, and the school that discourages pre-professionalism among undergraduates is home to a "B-school" with the most majestic of campuses.

The more we separate our undergraduate years from later pursuits, the more pragmatic we can expect those pursuits to be. When we enjoy one extreme now, we must recognize that we simultaneously invite the other one later. While Harvard enforces the distinction between academic pursuits and career training in its undergraduate course of study, Oxford merely chooses to take the same stand with respect to graduate studies.

Joshua A. Katzin is a sophomore living in Lowell House.

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