Bulldoze the Business Schools!

Burying business schools under a heap of rubble sounds like a good idea. Shutting them down might not be enough. One of the problems is that universities are generally understood to be institutions with responsibilities to the societies they serve. Why then do we assume that degrees in business should only teach one form of organisation – capitalism? Business schools are indeed the running dogs of capitalism teaching mainly four areas in support of for-profit corporations: accounting, marketing, operations management, and human resource management (HRM). For business schools, the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, business schools also teach that environmental costs are external to supply chain logistics while the task of marketing is not much more than creating new desires. Marketing’s core idea is indeed to get people to buy things they do not need with money they do not have to impress people they do not even like. All this creates pathologies.

To camouflage the inherent pathologies of business and capitalism, business schools and their Servants of Power have invented the tautological ideology of business ethics. The subject is taught as if business ethics was somehow different from the sort of ethics that the rest of us practise. Relying on a skilful mixture of profit-maximising, “how-to-do” knowledge and ideology, one is tempted to argue that business schools are not proper scholarly fields like biology, sociology, or psychology. There is no “-ology” and no “science of…” in management and business studies. Instead, the business school bosses –yet to be called CEOs – endlessly talk about something business schools lack: academic excellence. As a matter of fact, many managerial buzz words and “weasel words” used by business schools are rather Orwellian in character. They tend to mean the complete opposite from what is actually the case. More often than not, this is combined with an ideologically motivated hiding of the truth.

Oxford University’s Said Business School is a case in point. The school may not be that eager to elaborate on its origins. In 1996, Oxford’s Said Business School was generously endowed by a financier and businessman who brokered the £43 billion Al Yamamah arms sale by the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. While keeping the rather unsavoury founding process in mind, the idea that ignorant merchants needed education reached Oxford University. This was done to maintain sound financial morality, the motto of Wharton business school presenting yet another Orwellian notion.

Furnished with such elevated levels of morality, most business school graduates won’t become high-level managers anyway but instead are destined to exist as precarious cubicle drones in anonymous office blocks. Many of these graduates have been taught the business school’s main ideology, there is nothing else below the bottom line. As business schools come to age, its academics have become part of a self-reinforcing circle of business school academics. Indeed, today’s students are taught by people who have done business school PhDs – like me. This, of course, includes the top-down “I-manage-you” subject of HRM. Despite the use of the word, Human Resource Management is not particularly interested in what it is like to be a human being. And just in case it needs saying, HR is not on the side of the trade union, or the worker. That would be partisan.

Like HRM, business schools as a whole are built on the assumption that human behaviour – of employees, customers, managers and so on – is best understood as if we are all rational egoists. The hallucination of the neoliberal homo economicus is constantly and consistently rehearsed through, for example, a sheer endless array of crypto-psychology and leadership classes, textbooks, conferences, semi-academic journals, etc. A case in point is leadership. Business schools teach about leadership as if it were a form of grace. It is done mostly without reflecting on the fact that the anti-democratic and deeply authoritarian “leader-follower” template may not be the perfect model for a society, a company or any human organisation for that matter.

Instead, the leader-model may well be the perfect model of a moderately intelligent monkey. It is also the model for the business school-induced eternal quest to be a “Great Corporate Leader”. The never dying “dear leader” mythology is almost as old as we are. For thousands of years men used to hit each other on the head until one kept standing and declared himself the leader. Today, we use a pen and call it election but we still have a leader. What we don’t have is the qualitative progress of not having a leader. Business schools are not places of human progress. Instead, inside themselves they are mirroring the corporate setup with the leader on top of middle-management or bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is constantly exposed to the danger of giving petty clerks too much power. Still, the clerk – not furnished with an MBA – has knowledge of the files but effectively remains only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march. At the end of the march may well be Wallace-Wells’ “Uninhabitable Earth”.

In many cases, managers march either below or above other managers inside an organisational hierarchy – Fayol’s chain of command. Management’s etymology dates back not just to the handling of horses but more importantly to the domestication of horses as its practices (ropes, lashes, whips, etc.) were used for the domestication of workers. Since management moved from what was once called “theory X” (punishment) towards “theory Y” (rewards), management uses KPIs, rewards, bonuses, etc., thereby relieving middle-management of the need for brutalities. This occurred at least in most western non-sweatshop-like arrangements. With this in mind, Martin Parker, in his book Shut Down the Business School, outlines four critiques of business schools:

1. As nostalgic critique favouring personal freedom that issues a pre-modern critique that seeks to return to the hallucination of happy industrial feudalism.

2. Secondly, there is a modernising critique seeking the charismatic leader while,

3. a cultural critique is pursuing the good manager in English-speaking culture.

4. Finally, there is also an anti-authoritarian critique highlighting that business schools persuade people that they are too stupid to organise themselves.

As for these critiques, it is interesting to note that the business school employs most of its critics. This tells us something about the ineffectual nature of the criticism, and the strength of the institution. It does indeed. Instead of critical reflection or self-criticism we see the very opposite. There wasn’t reflection or self-criticism but confidence at the helm of Enron run by mostly MBAs. Furthermore, George W. Bush became the first president to have an MBA. From start to end, Bush’s presidency had all the trimmings one would expect from an MBA. Bush’s initial non-election and eventual appointment by his daddy’s friends, strategically positioned in the US Supreme Court, was a dodgy affair. As president he offered laws like “no child left behind” that left millions of children behind as poverty grew. Externally, Bush started a war against Iraq for no weapons of mass destruction, no atom bombs, and no link to 9/11. Instead, Bush’s war gave the world torture centres like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

Seeing all this one needs to close down business schools. Instead of business schools, he suggests a school of organising. Discussing how to change the business school towards a school of organising makes up the second half of the book. Changing the business school would mean to take the business out of the b-school. Essentially, the book argues that business schools focus narrowly and rather one-sidedly on capitalist firms, companies, and corporations. As a consequence of such a strong partiality – if not ideological determination – in favour of capitalism, business schools lack scholarly credibility while focusing only on one model of organising – capitalism’s model. Families, communities, sports clubs, local state authorities, organising a nation-wide and state-run health insurance, producer and consumer cooperatives, etc. are just a few models which are all but excluded from the business school curricula. As a consequence, the business school cannot describe, or perhaps even understand, this diversity, because it is largely committed to the narrow idea of market managerialism. Like a medical school that only teaches about arms and legs.

Managerialism remains the key word. There is a history Managerialism, Managerialism is also relevant to business schools and there is the spread of Managerialism’s and its dangerous ideology. Much of this occurs under Managerialism’s formula of MA=MEI Managerialism is management + expansion + ideology. Managerialism is not only an ideology that increasingly moves toward becoming a full blown hegemony, it also spreads ever deeper into many non-management areas of society. Managerialism colonises what Habermas once called the Lifeworld. Business schools have been instrumental in this. They are the prime ideology suppliers to Managerialism’s global project of not just entering but also converting all spheres of human life into spheres of management. Today, we no longer have a sex-life – we “manage our sex-life”.

Occasionally (when teaching MBAs how to humanise work), I have asked myself, why do former high-school teachers working in the state department of education need an MBA? Is education a profit-maximising idea? Are schools anywhere close to resembling corporations? Do schools now have shareholders, a bottom line? Are school students still children or already customers? Should these teachers become part of a managerial elite marching to the tune of Managerialism? Should they enforce the iron law of oligarchy [found in] self-preservation, glorification and the consolidation of power? Unlike capitalism and profit-maximising corporations, schools and virtually all other non-managerialist organisations should have three responsibilities, namely to ourselves, to others, and to our future. Crucial is the question “what do students want”? which is most exquisitely outlined in “Selling Students Short. What can be said about the business school can increasingly also be said about the neoliberal PR university. No wonder then that students might imagine themselves as customers when the business school itself treats them as customers.

All this not only relates to teaching but business schools also conduct research. More often than not this is corporately funded research about corporations and for corporations. Euphemistically, business schools label this “industry partnership”. These are the times when professorships are increasingly made dependent on attracting external revenue. Much of this occurs in the well crafted value chain of: funding Žresearch Žpublications Žimpact factor Žprofessorship. Some business schools already run “impact competition” issuing presents and awards like a meat-raffle in the local pub. This is the pathology of impact factor fetishism.

Finally, what needs to change. There are predominately four potential groups that can, at least potentially, be agents for change. The first group with the ability to change business schools are state agencies that regulate higher education but this is the least likely option. Similarly, professional associations are also most unlikely to be the drivers of change as these are embedded – in bed with – the business schools. Thirdly, there are the academics themselves but there is very little evidence that changing the business school is actually happening. Finally, there is critical management studies (CMS) that has next to no influence over the formulation of policy and strategy for virtually all business schools. Indeed, the task of CMS has never been emancipation. Instead, CMS provides a system corrective for business schools when seeking to fine-tune corporate affairs. Given all this, let’s bulldoze the business school.

Martin Parker’s book “Shut Down the Business School” is published by Pluto Press.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.