Why Harvard Business School gets blamed for income inequality

  • There are more Fortune 500 CEOS with MBAs from Harvard than from Wharton, Stanford and European business school INSEAD combined.
  • That doesn't mean Harvard should take all the blame for the widening income gap.
Lisi Cai | Getty Images

This article originally ran on LinkedIn.

If the same extended family produced Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Charles Manson, at some point it would probably be worth asking, "Hey, do we really know what we're doing here? Cousins Randy, Billy, and John turned out okay, but remember cousin Jeff? He kept a dude's head inside of his fridge. And Charlie? That guy was flat-out crazy."

That, essentially, is the point of journalist Duff McDonald's new book, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. While there are no heads-in-fridges, McDonald argues something must be amiss if the world's most prestigious business school produced the man who managed the Vietnam War (Kennedy Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), the man who led us into the Iraq war (former President George W. Bush), and the man who took Enron from being the world's most admired company to being the perennial example of corporate fraud (former CEO and current resident of the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, Jeffrey Skilling).

According to McDonald, the repeated high-profile failures in leadership associated with prominent alumni of Harvard Business School (HBS), along with the school's relentless focus on shareholder value that began in the 1980s with the hiring of Professor Michael Gerson, are two ways the school has wreaked havoc on the economy.

But is HBS really one of the root causes of all that's wrong with the economy?

Clearly, the school has had a huge impact on American and global business practices. There are more Fortune 500 CEOS with MBAs from Harvard than from Wharton, Stanford, and European business school INSEAD combined. And George W. Bush and Robert McNamara weren't the only Harvard MBAs to serve at the highest levels of government. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, poor man's Rasputin/former Breitbart Chairman Steve Bannon, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all earned their MBAs at Harvard.

So yes, HBS has had a considerable impact on how the public has come to understand the role of business in society.

"Clearly, the school has had a huge impact on American and global business practices. There are more Fortune 500 CEOS with MBAs from Harvard than from Wharton, Stanford, and European business school INSEAD combined."

Still, McDonald lays a lot at the feet of one business school, saying, "The Harvard Business School became (and remains) so intoxicated with its importance that it blithely assumed away one of the most important questions it could ask, which was whether the capitalist system it was uniquely positioned to help improve was designed properly for the long term. Today, in 2016, with economic inequality at a hundred-year high and meaningful progress on climate change and other social and environmental issues embarrassingly paltry, the answer to that question is obvious. It is not."

McDonald isn't the first to criticize HBS, and if you're an institution that produces once-in-a-generation examples of awful leadership every few years, you should rethink your approach—even if most HBS alumni do not lead the nation into catastrophic wars. Using the family analogy, the fact that Billy is president of the bank does not negate the time Jeff ate a guy he met at the park.

But HBS isn't responsible for every broken thing in the economy and our business culture. McDonald's book falls into a tendency we have to attribute everything we wish were different in society to a single person or institution. It's like finding out you have a tumor, then blaming all your shortcomings on the tumor. Societally, we give the tumor a name: "If only Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton/Harvard Business School weren't here, everything would be better."

One person or institution is never the root of all evil, but believing so is a lot easier than accepting responsibility.

Income inequality doesn't exist because administrators and professors at one school became beholden to corporate benefactors and abdicated their role as educators and thinkers. That may have happened—McDonald makes a convincing case that it did—but that's not why incomes have stagnated for middle- and working-class families while CEO pay has skyrocketed. As McDonald himself argues, HBS doesn't typically drive changes in business—it justifies change after it occurs.

Inaction on income inequality and "other social and environmental issues" isn't the fault of HBS. The school may be as insidious and damaging as McDonald argues it is, but the real tumor isn't one MBA program.

The real tumor is the way you and I and everyone we know have bought into the idea that worth is the same thing as wealth, and that we have no responsibility to one another.

Income inequality wasn't forced on us. The huge disparages we see in wealth between the top 1% and the rest of us are the result of specific government policies enacted (at least in the United States) by politicians from both parties.

How have we responded?

Usually by reelecting the same politicians—or not voting at all.

Harvard Business School didn't create the extremely unequal economy we live in or pollute our natural spaces. To the extent that it played a role—and I believe it did—it was a role the rest of us allowed the school and its alumni to play.

It is always easier to point the finger at a person or institution and say, "You there—if only you were gone, things would be better."

But as my daughter once told me, when you point the finger at someone else there are four fingers pointing back at you. The Golden Passport makes a solid argument that one finger should be pointed at Harvard Business School—but we shouldn't forget where the other four fingers are pointed.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. The firm does consulting work analyzing how politics effects the business climate for clients in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. McKissen was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016. He holds a Bachelors degree in Public Policy, and a Masters degree in Public Administration and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCOpinion on Twitter.