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VIEWPOINTS : Even Harvard Business School Has a Downside

September 30, 1990|DAVID W. EWING | DAVID W. EWING, who served on the Harvard Business School faculty for nearly 40 years, is author of the new book, "Inside the Harvard Business School." He now is a full-time writer

The Harvard Business School, with its elegant 61-acre campus and 55,000 graduates, has been dubbed the "cathedral of management" and the "West Point of capitalism." People with MBAs from Harvard are in the news every day, and in business and government they wield enormous power. At a time when industry is striving for excellence, the B school stresses higher standards of "quality control" in teaching than almost any other educational institution in the world.

Unlike most other schools, moreover, the B school is affluent. Every year, many millions of dollars come from alums to swell a burgeoning endowment. With more than two dozen buildings already in use and a new $20-million recreation facility just completed, the administration is hungry for more. It now hopes to build soon an exquisite chapel on campus.

Students learn many ideas and techniques that help them enormously after graduation. They learn the need to make decisions with imperfect information, ways to cope with stress, the danger of perfectionism, the importance of setting priorities, techniques of digging for facts and numerous other approaches. Currently, they are developing an ethical awareness, with the help of new cases, that few students learn elsewhere.

In many ways, therefore, criticizing the B school is like criticizing motherhood or baseball--it just isn't done, especially by an insider. However, there are valid criticisms of the B school, and they should be kept in mind by a discerning public. At the cost of inflaming many valued colleagues and friends made during my many years at the school, let me mention the main criticisms as I see them:

* Arrogance and elitism. The B school tends to breed an attitude in students, graduates and teachers that they are superior human beings. Sometimes the symptoms are subtle: a self-satisfied smile; a bloated feeling that "I deserve everything I've got;" a little too much haste in identifying with the B school in outside activities; avoiding contacts with manual and clerical workers as if they weren't important, and so on. Sometimes the symptoms are not so subtle. One time in a public place I heard someone boast, "My dear man, of course I know what I'm talking about. I graduated from the Harvard Business School."

In the short run, this sense of elitism is useful. It helps fund-raisers, it enables students to survive the relentless demands of the first year, it bolsters the faculty's esprit de corps. In the long run, however, elitism is costly, turning many non-B-school people off and breeding resentment.

* Materialism. Few MBAs at Harvard pay much attention to the apostle Paul's observation that "the love of money is the root of all evil things." The almighty dollar reigns supreme on campus; bottom-line thinking is obsessive. While the faculty often reminds students that other things are important too, money comes first, in and out of class.

In the white-pillared library, which reputedly houses more business material than any other library in the world, the bust of mogul Henry Clay Frick glowers at passersby, silently measuring their financial importance. The main buildings at the school are named after financial tycoons. At graduation time, many MBAs observe the longstanding custom of waving dollar bills.

The school takes pride in the high starting salaries of graduates, which now average more than $60,000 a year. Many offices and buildings focus on fund raising, job placement and other financial activities. During crucial parts of the year, in fact, the B school resembles a huge executive placement agency, with corporate recruiters interviewing students, lunching in the faculty club and bustling about.

As a result, the money obsessions that many students bring to the school are fortified when they go back to industry. They view employees as a cost to be minimized. They see judges and prosecutors in the court system as people to be bought, if necessary. They strive for opulent salaries and homes. Their attitudes rub against the grain of many people, and from time to time an angry public exacts harsh curbs.

* Obnoxious graduates. Somewhere between 10% and 15% of a normal class graduating from the school are neurotic dingbats, loudmouths, conceited nerds, abrasive jerks. Perhaps almost any group anywhere has a similar percentage of obnoxious people, but if they are B-school grads, they have high visibility and therefore are more annoying.

To their credit, the majority of B-schoolers try to discipline the obnoxious ones in their midst. Sometimes they do this effectively. One alum I know feels that the most valuable thing he took away from B school was not knowledge or skill but self-discovery. "I was tactless," he said. "I came on much too strong, and many let me know it. I learned in Boston that I have to watch myself constantly."

Unfortunately, most obnoxious students become obnoxious grads; the leopard doesn't change its spots.

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