University Business November/December 2019 - 6

OnTopic

Q&A with Steven Conn
By Tim Goral

The B-school boondoggle
A historian questions the role of and reasons for America's
business schools

Do business schools fulfill their
promises of developing innovative,
outside-the-box thinkers? Do they
help society by making better business leaders who will put people
ahead of moneymaking? Steven
Conn says they don't and they never
have. In his book, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools
(Cornell University Press, 2019),
Conn, a W.E. Smith professor of history at Miami University in Ohio,
says business programs increasingly
take precedence over liberal arts programs, often with state-of-the-art
facilities and more resources. But
when it comes to measuring results,
Conn reveals a disappointing history of missed opportunities, unmet
aspirations and education mistakes.
"We may not quite believe in the
disinterested search for truth the
way our predecessors once did," he
says, "but we bristle at the idea that
a university might promote profitmaking as a goal unto itself."

UBmag.me/sconn
6 | November/December 2019

You say teaching business techniques
isn't the real work of universities.
The modern university is a big tent, and
lots of different things go on there. I
was trying to express an attitude that
many of us, primarily in the arts and
sciences, have about the business school.
There are lots of programs that teach
specific skills: occupational therapy,
dental hygiene and all of those things
that are part of big universities.
It's hard to defend any notion
of public good, or civic duty, in
what business schools teach. We all
need a dental hygienist. We all need
occupational therapists. And the
business school seems to be the odd
man out in the sense of which master is
being served.
One of your criticisms is that these
schools haven't done much to
transform business into something
more noble than moneymaking.
I don't think many people would
disagree with me on that. Some of the
sharpest critics of business schools over
the past hundred years have consistently
been people from inside business
schools. They complain that they have
not risen beyond mere moneymaking.
Certainly, the people who founded
business schools really did believe that
there was going to be something more
noble, more ethical, more publicminded. That just hasn't happened.
People complain about what
constitutes a business education,
while business leaders complain
about the quality of business school

graduates. That makes me wonder
about the purpose of business school.
Exactly. There have evolved two
primary purposes for business schools.
The first, going all the way back to the
world's oldest business college-The
Wharton School at The University of
Pennsylvania-is the cultural cachet
that comes with a college degree. You
don't actually need a degree in business
to be a successful business person. But
a college degree was a way for that first
generation of robber barons to feel
like they were just as good as lawyers,
doctors, theologians and so forth. That
is still largely true.
I had a discussion with a student
who was angry about something I had
written on this. He said college was
expensive and he had to take out loans
to go, so you're damn right he wanted a
high-paying job when he left.
And I told him that if a high-paying
job and debt burden is why you're
in college, I have a better solution.
Skip college altogether and become a
certified welder. An 18-year-old kid
with a welding certification can walk
into a job earning anywhere from
$75,000 to $90,000 per year because
there are more jobs than there are
welders to go around. So if that's the
only thing at stake here, then you
should have become a welder.
What is the second purpose?
The second reason business schools
exist-and they've evolved in this
direction-is for networking. It's the
easiest, fastest way for corporations to
do their hiring. The people that you
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