Business schools should be shut down – even if that puts me out of a job

Only a completely new institutional structure will see teaching and research on organisations become a proper, socially responsible subject, and not merely a cash cow, says Martin Parker

June 21, 2018
Illustration by Michael Parkin (21 June 2018)
Source: Michael Parkin

Academics often complain about what is wrong with their subject areas. They grumble that certain questions are not being given enough attention, or that there are more radical ways of approaching old problems. Sometimes, impatient younger academics’ criticisms of the “pale, male and stale” fogeys who reject their papers and refuse their grants can become rather noisy. But it is rare even for such firebrands to call for the abolition of their entire department.

That, however, is what I have done in my new book. Shut Down the Business School asks for what it says on the cover. I want to bring in the wrecking ball because redecoration simply won’t be enough to paper over business education’s deep and multiple cracks: demolition is the only option.

Still, I’m left with an odd feeling. I have been earning a living at business schools for two decades, and it is also where most of my academic colleagues and friends work. I feel a bit guilty because many of those colleagues will almost certainly take my words as a personal criticism. I am like a guest throwing the home-cooked meal at the wall, or telling them that their children look like goblins. I can’t really expect handshakes and praise.

My publishers are no help at all. They have been encouraging me to write something incendiary, and I had to prevent them from placing a declamatory exclamation mark at the end of the title. I might have preferred a question mark. Like kids in a playground pushing me towards the school bully, they have been urging me to pick a fight with my business school dean. Go on. Hit him. He deserves it. After all, they want to sell lots of copies of my campus version of an insider’s kiss and tell.

Not that I am the first person to criticise business schools, of course. A small industry of critics, from both the Right and the Left, have been taking aim at the institution for decades, accusing it of producing MBAs who think that qualifications are more important than experience, or just encouraging people to be greedy bastards. Over the past few years, a coterie of academics identified by the label “critical management studies” – and I am one of them – have made careers as well-paid and well-published critics of business and management education. We bite the hand that feeds us, while hoping it carries on doing so nonetheless.

But the business school has continued to grow, largely oblivious to its critics. The money keeps rolling in, and the vice-chancellors need it. More students means more income and more jobs, so even the internal dissenters get promoted – as long as they publish their dissent in the very best international journals. It’s a measure of the confidence of business schools that they can allow their critics to make as much noise as they like. Elephants don’t really care if ants complain about them.

When pressed, business school deans insist that they do care about diversity, the environment and social justice. Look at the modules we offer on corporate social responsibility and business ethics! Look at our signatures on the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education! Look at our recycling bins!

And all the while, they make millions by selling master’s degrees in corporate finance, telling students fairy stories about leadership and making promises about shiny jobs in shiny buildings.

That’s why I don’t think that it would be enough to change the curriculum or the branding. Something much more radical needs to happen if teaching and research on organisations and organising is to become a proper subject, and not merely a cash machine for the university.

It is important that varieties of organising be researched and taught in universities – and not merely those that pertain to capitalist businesses. Geographers explore the entire Earth, and chemists experiment on the whole periodic table. Why, then, do business schools teach market managerialism as if it were the only game in town? Why do they ignore cooperatives and mutuals? Why do they have so little to say about workplace democracy and localising the economy?

Shutting down the business school and replacing it with a “School for Organising” won’t be easy. The neoliberal, hierarchical management structures that our universities have embraced in recent years (encouraged, no doubt, by the management literature) make such bold changes easier to drive through than they might be under more democratic arrangements, but many vice-chancellors, deans, academics and students will defend a status quo that works so strongly in their own interests.

But if universities are going to help address the challenges of sustainability, social justice and inclusion that face us, they need to recognise the complicity of their business schools in generating the problems in the first place.

So apologies to my colleagues, but I do want to put us out of a job.

Martin Parker is professor of organisation studies at the University of Bristol. His latest book, Shut Down the Business School: What's Wrong with Management Education, is published by Pluto Press.

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