Business School Tango

November 8, 2003

It happens again – and again – you set a hard quiz, and suddenly, you are the villain. This is reality for teachers today in business schools across America. The malaise is spreading, and spreading fast. Business schools are fast receding into being rubber-stamping operations, and finding rigor in our academic environments is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Yes, the inmates are running the asylum.

Unless we reassess where our business education is going, we will recede into irrelevance. While business becomes more and more technical, business schools become softer. Technology use is growing, but only to emphasize form over substance. The more ethics we teach, the less ethical the environment becomes. Students care only about grades, very little about learning.

Business schools are a particular problem, though there are other departments that come close. A colleague once made an incisive observation – “we need to stop treating students as customers, and treat them as products”. I believe that thinking is spot on – and it will surely help in producing better students.

Teaching ratings lead to distorted incentives – faculty try to keep students happy to buttress their ratings. This only lowers standards, which have been dropping steadily over time. Powerpoint is the drug that students crave – hand out some slides, and keep those withdrawal symptoms away (see Edward Tufte’s article: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html). It is only in business schools that students keep telling faculty how to teach. I never experienced this even once in engineering school, and I am absolutely sure that residents dont keep advising surgeons how to perform operations.

But of course, we are not surgeons, and we are not saving lives. That is just the point. The future lies with us business school faculty – we should be taking our jobs more seriously, and our work is as important, if not more important, as any other professional course. We have to become more rigorous, and create an environment in which we raise standards to engage the best students in class, not keep the complaining ones happy. For it is those hard-working sincere students that are the future of our business schools – I see so many of them in class every week, and it is they that keep me going, despite the other frustrations. I write this out of respect and gratitude to you – my sincere students.

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