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A Crisis In MBA Culture?

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Not that we're ones to blow our own horns here at Vault, but there is an undeniable amount of satisfaction to be gained from writing an Executive Careers blog post on questioning the merits of the MBAonly to find that The New York Timeshas followed in your footsteps some five months later.

Not only that, but it's interesting to note the change in public reaction from the comments received in the aftermath of our piece (many of which aren’t fit to print, and most of which disagreed with us), and the reaction to the Times piece.

Questions over the different demographics between typical Times and CNBC blog readers aside, one can't help but get the feeling that public sentiment has shifted against the prevailing business and economic culture the longer this recession has continued. And when every bonus scandal and example of corporate greed that emerges only seems to reinforce the sense that something has gone badly wrong with our culture and values, it's only natural that we start looking at how and where those values were fostered. Thus, the spotlight of late has fallen on business schools, and the type of ideas they've been disseminating on their courses—and it's highlighted the issue, once again, of whether the qualification is something that an aspiring executive (or someone seeking shelter from the current economy) should be putting their faith and money in.

A graphic from the Graduate Management Admission Council that accompanies the Times article demonstrates just how widespread the MBA is in the finance industry: more than 30 percent of all MBA grads end up in the field, compared to around 20 percent of the intake who enter B-school from the world of finance. The phrase "gateway credential," then, seems more than fair—and especially for gaining access to the upper echelons of the banking world. Given the number of "card-carrying MBAs" within that industry, and the perceived ethical vacuum in which they appear to have been operating, one naturally begins to question the impact the 60-odd percent who didn't go into finance are having on the wider corporate world.

The Times piece goes into more detail on some of the problems with the current content of many MBA programs, pointing out that many students "are taught to come up with hasty solutions to complicated problems" and "graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value," but "only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership." And therein lies the problem with the qualification as a gateway credential for anything; by stressing such a short-sighted, narrow approach to what constitutes "success" in a business, we're nurturing a generation of potential leaders with less regard for the long-term stability of a business than there should be.

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  • So is there a solution out there? Well, there just might be the seeds of one. The Deans of both Harvard and Yale Business Schools are quoted in the Times piece as seeking a new way forward, and many schools are already fleshing out the leadership, social and environmental aspects of their courses. Other schools may already be there, however. This recent piecein the Wall Street Journal postulates on the benefits of US students getting an MBA abroad—benefits that include such immediate considerations as cost and the ability to "internationalize" your resume at a time when the US job market is weaker than in other parts of the world. More importantly, it's also an opportunity for MBA students to step outside of the standard approach to business education and to benefit from an outside perspective on the US corporate world.

One doesn't need to head to Paris or Dubai to reap the benefits of an alternative approach to doing business, however. Bnet reports that the new director of Dalhousie University's School of Business Administration in Canada not only thinks that "business schools have created the crisis we're in," but is also seeking to implement "a core concept of responsible leadership" within Dalhousie's business school.

Now if only we can get that core concept in charge of AIG …

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com