Page last updated at 00:12 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Business schools face test of faith

By Kabir Chibber
Business reporter, BBC News

Wall Street bull
The Wall Street bulls that fuelled the growth of MBAs are a rare breed

For professional capitalists, it's the ultimate badge of honour.

For years, wannabe Gordon Geckos who wanted to climb the corporate ladder in the financial world needed to have a Masters of Business Administration, or MBA - at least if they wanted to drive the Ferrari and retire by 30 with lots of money.

Held by everyone from former president George W Bush to the current Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, the MBA was the ultimate status symbol for high-flying bankers during the credit boom years.

With the international financial system crippled during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, many are now asking what exactly these people learnt in business schools when they got their MBAs.

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article entitled: "Who taught them greed is good?"

Many argue the schools simply became factories for teaching free market dogma, fostering a business culture that got people to take riskier and riskier punts in search of ever-larger rewards.

The accusation is that business schools are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Capitalism questioned

However, at the elite European and US business schools, there is no radical reworking of their purpose or curriculum.

"In one sense, this is like any other event," said Sir Andrew Likierman, dean of the London Business School (LBS).

The LBS has a spacious modern campus in central London's leafy Regent's Park, the type of place that befits being ranked joint-first in the Financial Times' global MBA rankings for 2009.

The dining room serves stir-fried ostrich with honey and cashew nuts for lunch, but hardly anyone is eating it.

Markets happen everyday, whether people call them that or not
Sally Blount, New York University

The financial crisis is definitely being felt here.

"It's as positive as it can be," said Louis Amadio Rezende, 30, who gave up his job working for a cable TV company in Sao Paulo to begin his MBA at LBS last August.

"People are more stressed because they made an investment and they don't know if they're going to get a job or not at the end."

The MBA at LBS costs 45,500, still much cheaper than many equivalent US degrees.

There are signs for seminars on how to navigate the downturn near the concourse where Mr Rezende and his friends sit.

This year, like any other at LBS, students must study hard if they want to earn their MBAs.

Compulsory subjects include "Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility" and, of course, "Decision and Risk Analysis".

Despite accusations that business schools have their heads buried in the sand, most aren't rushing back to revise their curriculum.

'Business essentials'

Neither do schools feel they need to make changes to prevent another economic meltdown in the future.

"We believe that the business essentials that we teach aren't going to alter even in these times," said Jane Trombley, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Business School in New York.

"It isn't like we're going to change corporate finance, because these things don't change."

The MBA schools also reject the notion that they failed, or are responsible for the mess we're in.

"I don't acknowledge that," Sir Andrew said. "You could place the blame on consumers for borrowing too much, banks for lending too much, governments for allowing all of that to happen."

"If you look at history, most of these kinds of crises occurred before MBAs were around," he added.

Kids in a classroom
Many business schools expect their graduates to turn to NGOs

Yet the CEOs of the now-vanquished Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, Stanley O'Neal and Richard Fuld Jr, were MBAs. (Andy Hornby, the former head of British lender HBOS, also had one from Harvard.)

They were supposed to be a smarter breed of banker. Why did they fail so badly?

"It's difficult to to pin the blame on schools when they may not have engaged with those students for years or decades," said Frank Brown, the dean of France's Insead, which has campuses near Paris and Singapore.

Human nature?

But is there any point to the study of economics when so many cherished beliefs about how markets function are being thrown out the window? None of the deans are suffering from a crisis of faith.

"I absolutely still believe in capitalism - just with more substance and transparency," Mr Brown said.

They argue that economics as a field of academic study is still relevant and won't go the way of alchemy or phrenology and disappear from mainstream thinking.

"Economics is the study of how people make decisions," said Sally Blount, dean of New York University's undergraduate school of business.

"Markets happen everyday, whether people call them that or not."

As he prepares to go to another class, Mr Rezende said he understands why people are questioning the value of business schools, but suggests the crisis is down more to human nature than education.

"You can teach risk management, but if afterwards you go to a place where they reward you to take risk and everyone is making money doing it, then you'll embrace it," he said.

"If people expect the business schools to make people less greedy, then that's too much responsibility."

New realities

With banks firing rather than hiring, the business schools are still businesses and have no choice but to adapt to new economic realities.

At Insead, the normal rate of job offers for students after graduation was about 85-90% in the boom years. This past December, Mr Brown said the rate was more like 65-75%.

So most schools are introducing more compulsory courses in public policy as they seek to send their MBAs to jobs in non-governmental organisations and government institutions that are now taking a bigger role in the world economy.

"I don't think there could be a better time to be educating people our economy, or ethics and how they function with our markets," Ms Blount said.

A new NYU course launching next year in business economy with a larger political component had 800 applications for 50 spots, she said.

And though most business schools reject that they are ivory towers pushing a particular type of economics, there are some tentative suggestions that the disciples of free market economists, such as Milton Friedman, may not be in as much demand at faculties anymore.

"It would get very frustrating to get into conversations with people that thought markets could solve absolutely anything," Ms Blount said. "What we've learnt is that markets aren't gods."

It remains to see whether the letters MBA will be as respected in 21st century as they were in the 20th, or how the banking industry will evolve.

Those working in the field now, though, are having to adapt in ways that would have been unthinkable only months ago.

Last week, a former investment banker, who previously worked in corporate finance, joined The Guardian as a business reporter. It's a scary day when bankers seek the professional security of journalism.

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