Occupy the business schools? Really? Because this is what David Ikenberry and Donna Socknell declared last week in Bloomberg/Business Week. Does this mean doing away with the hierarchies – the academic ranks, the departments, tenure – and replacing them with the horizontal organization of Occupy? Does this mean opening up decisions to all stakeholders’ voices, with transparency, joy, and love? Occupy is a militant protest movement to its most ardent participants, not a marketing slogan, corporate change program, or lifestyle brand. Occupy means radical reexamination of every institution with a hand in the overconcentration of wealth and power, the plutocratization of politics, the marginalization of communities and cultures, and the plunder of the Earth.
Invoking “Occupy” is a radical step for any B-school dean. What further steps await the intrepid dean-gone-occupier? Slashing tuition from above $60,000 to more reasonable levels? Forswearing the facilitation of private student loans? Surely, including ethics lessons in every course – as if every moment weren’t teachable – falls far short of a moral education. Who cares about deontological this and consequentialist that and how-would-you-resolve-this-dilemma if the MBA students are not surrounded by a caring, collaborative, supportive and authentic community throughout their studies, where ethical leadership is modeled continually, and where domination and hypocrisy are leavened and reversed? It takes a deeply moral community to build a courageously ethical leader.
What about the numbing reductionism of the modern MBA paradigm? Occupy seeks to make whole a broken society and political economy. In conventional MBA programs, the departments are proudly disparate siloes, decoupling academics from one another’s worlds. They read different journals, go to different conferences, write mutually unintelligible (yet similarly irrelevant) papers, and teach different theories and world-views. What good is an overlay of ethics modules if the “functional” disciplines are deeply fractured and reductionism rules?
In 1960, about 5,000 new MBA students enrolled in American business schools. In 2009 – the all-time peak – this number reached around 125,000. The half-century spanned by these two years saw our middle class decline, our manufacturing flee, our family farms decimated, our small towns gutted, our people ravaged by excess and pointlessness, and the financial sector swell into a dominant component of our economy. It also saw the explosive spread of a global capitalism that grows more extractive and heedless by the day, particularly in places where environmental protection and human rights are weak. Is there any connection between the mindset of the modern MBA grad and these destructive decades? One has to wonder, because they were running the organizations that made all this happen. Ikenberry and Socknell call them “good people doing terrible things.” How were they good? Good is what good does [that’s what business ethics profs call “consequentialism,” by the way]. Society lets the likes of Enron, Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff, and MF Global do what they do because of a corrupted, hard-hearted, individualistic culture of economic power cutting across business, government, education, and other major institutions. Yeah, maybe occupying the B-schools would help.
Finally, are cross-curricular CSR modules even remotely adequate? Modern management has taught us to think of people as consumers, to ignore communities, to buy off “stakeholders,” to abandon economic losers, to discount the future, to place exaggerated value on personal wealth, and to treat much of what makes our planet and our humanity wonderful as disposable commodities. CSR doesn’t really challenge these. CSR is often about band-aids and public communication that, at best, mean a little less unsustainability. This is the most that even the “good” companies usually want in their new hires – not real occupiers!
John Ehrenfeld sees sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” Can business schools steeped in the converse be trusted to truly “occupy” themselves in this spirit?