For Harvard Business School (HBS) and University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the way forward is a syllabus that shifts the predominant focus from financial success to ethical business.
In separate announcements last week, both schools announced major curriculum changes, indicating that the loud noise from the past years, including the blame the MBA community continues to receive for the Wall Street crisis, seems to have permeated.
The business school environment is clearly changing, with shifting student aspirations and a recessionary economy rewriting definitions of professional development and career success. For HBS's new Dean Nitin Nohria, this is the time to make his mark.
A vocal advocate for corporate social responsibility, Nohria authored a controversial article for the Harvard Business Review in 2008, arguing that managers had "lost legitimacy" and that there is a strong need for a "rigorous code of ethics."
"The university caused a stir last week when it said it would significantly revamp its MBA program, adding new required courses with an increased focus on ethics and teamwork. It's an unusual step away from the school's lauded case-study method of teaching and the start of a planned overhaul—made more urgent as the school seeks to restore a reputation tarnished by the financial crisis."
And for now, Nohria seems to be delivering.
Of course, restoring trust in business education and ensuring it is relevant in the marketplace aren't the only challenges facing Nohria. He also has to deal with a school that has been known for—and as many would argue been built on—an image that professes a money-hungry culture over corporate or social entrepreneurship.
As HBS' Chief Marketing Officer Brian Kenny says in the same WSJ piece, the purpose of these changes is to create "leaders of competence and character, rather than just connections and credentials."
This is where Nohria's challenge is acutest.
At last year's Net Impact conference, Srikant Datar—another Harvard professor and the author of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads—made a similar point: "Business is about leading people and delegating, making things happen, not doing everything yourself. [There needs to be a realization that] a sense of purpose must be very high on your priority list. And this is where the MBA curriculum fails."
Datar also cited former Dean of HBS Edwin Gay who said the "purpose of business is to make a decent profit decently," adding that this notion has long been forgotten.
His advice: This notion must be reaffirmed to "rebalance business school curriculum."
So for now, Nohria gets my vote for putting years of promises and debates into practice.
Much like corporate culture, school culture takes time to shift. And for Harvard Business, this culture has been a century in the making. But if Nohria, Datar and others do practice what they preach effectively, they can not only influence the future direction of management education but also attempt returning some of the lost trust to the education system, and business itself.
Aman Singh is the Senior Editor, Corporate Social Responsibility with Vault.com and the author of Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company. She is a New York University alum and previously wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Her area of work includes corporate social responsibility, diversity practices and sustainability, and how they translate into recruitment and strategic development at companies. Connect with her on Twitter @VaultCSR.
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