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January 14, 2004

do business schools belong in universities?

I often ask myself this question as I arrive at work, since my office is in a building dominated by a business school. I'm all for programs that train effective business executives. But should these programs be subsidized by state universities and nonprofit institutions? Should they use academic norms such as tenure and peer-review? Why not just have for-profit training academies? There may be a great case for academic business schools, but I'm not sure.

For one thing, I'm not convinced that the debate in business schools is nearly broad or fundamental enough. In my university's Department of Government & Politics, faculty and students adopt and debate a wide variety of opinions. Some are anarchists or libertarians who are against both government and politics. Some want to see them radically changed. Others like and defend our current forms of politics and government. In contrast, business schools seem to treat businesses as self-evidently good. My own view is not hostile to business, but I do believe in robust debate in universities.

Perhaps it would be more fair to compare business schools to professional schools, which exist to train practitioners (not simply to promote debate). But even here, the comparison is not flattering to business schools. Quite a few law professors criticize the law wholesale, from various perspectives on the left and right. Even medical schools harbor radical critics of medicine, such as the libertarian Thomas Szasz. I do not see trenchant criticism of business coming out of business schools.

More important, business and medicine are professions that impose clearly defined public responsibilities on their members. Society subsidizes professional education, which is the only route to participation in certain fields. Because entrance to the "learned professions" is limited, those who graduate from professional schools can command high pay. But in return, we ask them to serve the public in specified ways. We impose no similar obligations on business people (with the exception of chartered public accountants). So do business schools belong in universities?

P.S., posted on Jan. 15: According to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Faculty members at leading business schools will join with the chief executive officers of some of the nation's top companies in a new ethics institute that will be housed at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, officials announced on Wednesday." Sounds like a start ...

Posted by peterlevine at January 14, 2004 12:24 PM


Hi, Peter. With regard to trenchant critiques of business from within the business schools, visit the website of the Critical Management Studies Interest Group of the Academy of Management:

The "critters" have been organizing within business schools for about six years.
Of course, this doesn't mean business schools should exist.


David Jacobs

Posted by: David Jacobs at February 2, 2004 03:18 PM

You might also take a look at the papers given at various critical management studies conferences held in the UK over the past 8 years. See for example

I think the professional model is also suspect because it assumes a clear and comparatively uncontested knowledge base - something that business school academics have not succeeded in monopolising in the face of stiff competition from gurus and consultants and others to whom practicing executives are more likely to turn.

Posted by: Hugh Willmott at July 26, 2005 01:15 PM

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