B-School Blues

Traditional two-year MBA programs are not threatened with extinction. Those in the top tier particularly will continue to be attractive to those with the time, the money, and the credentials to qualify.

However, their appeal has diminished. And their claim to provide a product that in no other way is attainable has been called into question. In recent years, applicants to B-Schools have voted with their feet. In 2016, 74% of one-year MBA programs in Europe reported growing numbers of applications. And, in the same year, applications to traditional two-year MBA programs fell in 53% of US business schools.

Other signs of change and challenge are in evidence as well. Not only are one-year MBA programs continuing to threaten two-year MBA programs, there are growing numbers of options even in addition to these. Some are alternative degree providers, such as Hyper Island, which offers Masters degrees to those who want to be media savvy. Others are so-called “corporate universities,” in-house providers such as Apple University in the US, and ArcelorMittal Leadership School in Luxembourg. In fact, large numbers of organizations – especially but not exclusively in the private sector – now provide in-house leadership and management training of some sort.*

There’s another indicator as well: the high number of B-Schools currently looking for leaders. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, an unusually large number of even some of the best business schools in the US are currently conducting searches for new deans. “Through the start of June, job listings for 28 business-school deans were advertised…. up nearly 50% from this time last year.”

Why this striking increase? Partially probably statistical anomaly. Still, there have also been some unanticipated early exits, and some searches that have gone on notably longer than usual. In other words, there are indicators that being a B-School dean is less rewarding than it used to be – even at the best institutions. As the dean of Yale University’s School of Management, Edward Snyder, put it, “Being the dean is becoming harder. The expectations of the various constituencies you serve have all dialed up, and it keeps getting a little more difficult to meet those expectations.”

Of course, some of the dissatisfactions are endemic to the context and culture within which B-Schools are embedded. Leadership generally is harder than it used to be. And most leading institutions as well as leading individuals are far less trusted and admired than they were even a generation ago.

But other of the dissatisfactions are specific to business schools particularly. Since their inception in the 19th century, they’ve had a problem being precise about their purpose. Originally, they were intended to professionalize management – to make managers professionals. However, once it became clear that this mission was not being realized, they’ve struggled to define themselves. In fact, leadership became an industry about forty years ago only in response to the failure to professionalize management.

Though the word “leadership” appears in most B-School mission statements – for example, the Harvard Business School states its mission is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business states its mission is to “develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world” – there is no metric that conclusively proves or even persuasively demonstrates that they are accomplishing these tasks during the required two-years. If there were, students would not be opting for one-year programs in droves, or even consider any alternative.

One could argue, and I do, that the initial failure to professionalize management, and the subsequent failure to professionalize leadership, is largely responsible for the restiveness that besets business schools generally, and two-year MBA programs particularly. Until traditional B-Schools develop the rigorous curricula that professionalizing leadership would really require, they will prompt applicants to question the investment in time as well as money.

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