SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Madonna isn’t the only one upset this week about an unauthorized biopic. Harvard Business School did what it could to thwart a new book by journalist Duff McDonald, but The Golden Passport hit store shelves anyway on Tuesday. As guardians of the Harvard galaxy feared, the conclusions aren’t pretty. "In McDonald’s view, the school has contributed to pretty much every bad thing that has happened in American business and the economy in the last century,” a New York Times book reviewer concludes. McDonald even blames "the moral failure of MBA elites" for the election of Donald Trump.
More broadly, McDonald lays out a case for business school malpractice that implicates other institutions. Smith MBA students responded Wednesday with an hour of self-reflection led by strategy professor Paulo Prochno. Participants who gathered for the lunchtime forum didn’t look much like villains as they chatted and ate pizza, but Prochno prodded them to stir debate. "If you’re just here for the free pizza, that’s part of the problem," he teased. Then he hit the students with a PowerPoint slide that declared in bold type: "You are dangerous."
The accusation was nothing new to students in the room, who quickly filled two whiteboards with stereotypes widely distributed in Hollywood films, opinion columns and higher education classrooms. The argument goes that MBAs are greedy, expensive, arrogant and even hedonistic. They care about numbers more than people. They think short term. "You’re just maximizing wealth for yourself and investors, and that’s pretty much it," said one student, summarizing the negative characterization. "You don’t care about what happens to the environment, the community or any other person."
McDonald uses even harsher language in his book, suggesting that Harvard teaches its MBAs to think like prostitutes. "If everybody assumes you’re a whore, you might as well grab as much money as possible while you’re still in demand," he writes.
MBAs know the power of perception in brand management, so students in the room considered the case against them with active minds. But they pushed back when Prochno asked: "Is it a mirror? Do you see yourselves reflected there?" After a pause, a consensus emerged. "We’re different than that," several students said.
For starters, the students cited their ability to analyze problems from multiple perspectives — something reflected in the lunchtime discussion. "We’re self-aware," one student said. Another pointed to the ability of MBAs to find scalable solutions to many of society’s biggest problems. "We’re trained to see market gaps and fill them," the student said.
Companies that do this well make profit for shareholders, but they also generate goods and services that enrich society. As markets have opened in recent decades, more than 1 billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty. Standards of health care, transportation, housing and telecommunication have improved for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Does Harvard Business School get credit for the upward mobility?
In the end Prochno said the measurement of MBA programs depends on how people define the fundamental purpose of business — something that likely won’t get resolved in one meeting or even one book.
Five Arguments for MBAs
Smith School professor Rajshree Agarwal, director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, lays out five often-overlooked reasons to celebrate MBAs in a 2015 Washington Post column.
Scenes from Hollywood Past
What's the main purpose of business? Humphrey Bogart's character provides his answer in the 1954 version of "Sabrina," one of several movies covered in a survey course taught by anthropologist Christina Elson at the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets. Watch pro-business scenes from "Sabrina" and two other classic films in this Smith Brain Trust video (2:56).
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