Learning to Lead? Guess not.

In the American system of higher education there is a single institution that regularly professes to teach how to lead. American Business Schools. Not every American Business School, but many and maybe even most American Business Schools. That is, many if not most American Business Schools declare that their primary mission is to train leaders, or to educate leaders, or to develop leaders.

How’s that going for them? Not so well. The number of full-time M.B.A. programs continues to dwindle. This trend is not new. But the fact that it’s been sustained without a break since at least 2014 is troubling; at least it’s troubling to deans of the nation’s business schools who are charged with, among their other tasks, keeping enrollments from dropping. As Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, put it: “If you were able to get every dean in the U. S. under a lie detector, outside of maybe the top 20 M.B.A, programs, every one of them would admit they were struggling to maintain enrollment and losing money on the program.”*

There are, of course, several reasons for the continuing drop in the number of full-time, two-year business school programs. They include costs, not only in money but in time; and a relatively strong job market even for those without advanced degrees; and competition from other business school programs that take only a year to complete or require no residency at all but are offered instead online.  

There is however another reason – one that pertains to their primary mission. Because of their brands, schools such as the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business can still get away with saying that their mission is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world” (Harvard) or to “develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world” (Stanford).  However, a school such as the one led by Dean Brown does not have the advantage of brand: by every measure the University of Illinois is less prestigious an institution than either Harvard or Stanford. So, bowing to the marketplace Geis is being forced to shrink beyond recognition. After this year’s incoming class completes its studies, the school will no longer offer either full-time or even part time M.B.A. degrees. The only such degrees it will offer will be online.  

In all the ink that’s been spilled on why traditional M.B.A. programs are biting the dust in such significant numbers, one reason is never given. It is that most, if not all, of these schools fail to fulfill their primary mission. Harvard and Stanford can still get away with claiming, respectively, that they educate leaders and develop leaders. Their brands remain that strong. But a school such as Geis could not. Here is Geis’s mission statement: “We prepare and empower exceptional, innovative, purposeful and ethical business leaders through knowledge creation and immersive learning experiences.” Seems to me self-evident that had Geis been able somehow to prove it really did “prepare and empower” exceptional leaders it would still be in business. But the fact that it, like nearly all such schools, could not, consigned its traditional graduate programs to the ash heap of history.

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*Quoted in Kelsey Gee, “Full-Time M.B.A. Programs Dwindle,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2019.

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