Business students taking time to reflect

 

WHARTON DIARY: Many commentators on the global financial crisis are pointing the finger at MBA graduates

THE SUMMER break has been a great time to reflect on my personal experiences in the first year of the MBA programme at Wharton, but it has also given me a chance to think about the ultimate value of an MBA degree.

Much has been made in the press recently of the role MBA graduates had in causing the ongoing and ever-evolving financial crisis. From the pages of the Wall Street Journalto more general publications like the New York Times, fingers have been pointed at graduates of schools such as Wharton and Harvard Business School for their part in creating the economic turmoil that is now gripping the world.

The debate has even reached The Irish Times. Writing in this newspaper recently, Brian Harney highlighted what he saw as a need for business schools to rethink the model of business education. He suggested that schools should look at what they are teaching students and try to develop greater understanding, rather than providing a one-size-fits-all approach to solving problems.

Other commentators have similar opinions. Philip Delves Broughton, who wrote about his experiences attending Harvard Business School in Ahead of the Curve, has highlighted that there are lots of people in private equity and hedge funds who you have never heard of, but they all came from schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Columbia Business School.

Broughton believes this group of people, who have the same education and who know each other through large and interconnected alumni networks, are to a degree responsible for many of the economic problems we are currently experiencing.

Business schools are not comfortable with this depiction of their shortcomings, and have vigorously defended themselves.

At the same time, there are moves to add courses on the financial crisis and more ethics education to curriculums in an effort to learn from the events of the past few years. This suggests the schools do see themselves as one contributor, among many, to the problems.

Some educators believe more is needed and are pushing for a deeper re-evaluation of the role of business schools. But perhaps the most interesting perspective in the debate is that of the students themselves.

One initiative I came across recently is a proposal from the student body at Harvard for a code of conduct for MBAs (see www.mbaoath.org). The idea is to provide something similar to the Hippocratic oath, whereby future business leaders sign up to a set of guiding principles covering moral and ethical standards in business.

Giving management a professional framework similar to that found in medicine or law, where practitioners commit to doing no harm, may prove to be challenging – the very essence of competition between firms requires that decisions are optimised to ensure your own survival, even if that is at the expense of a competitor.

The oath that the Harvard students put together is laudable, but taking the oath and policing it are very separate issues.

The oath as it stands is entirely voluntary, and there is no professional body to enforce it. As such, there is nothing stopping an MBA graduate taking the oath and then moving on immediately to engage in the worst forms of corporate greed and wrongdoing.

One comment I saw on the idea of the MBA oath highlighted this, claiming that the only people who would sign it were those with no intention of complying, or those who do not need an oath to make them honest.

The answer seems to lie with the students that the schools accept. The influx of members of the millennial generation into business schools may well be the tipping point needed to refocus these institutions. Having seen how motivated and engaged many of my classmates are, I believe that more and more MBA graduates from schools like Wharton will focus on creating long-term, sustainable value.

That is what I see as the ultimate value of an MBA: providing graduates with the tools and networks they need to change the world.

Whether these tools and networks get used for personal enrichment or for the good of society is up to the individual.