This post is a review I wrote of Steven Conn’s book, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools, which will be coming out this summer in History of Education Quarterly. Here’s a link to the proofs.
Steven Conn. Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019. 288pp.
In this book, historian Steven Conn has produced a gleeful roast of the American business school. The whole story is in the title. It goes something like this: In the nineteenth century, proprietary business schools provided training for people (men) who wanted to go into business. Then 1881 saw the founding of the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, which was the first business school located in a university; others quickly followed. Two forces converged to create this new type of educational enterprise. Progressive reformers wanted to educate future business leaders who would manage corporations in the public interest instead of looting the public the way robber barons had done. And corporate executives wanted to enhance their status and distinguish themselves from mere businessmen by requiring a college degree in business for the top level positions. This was both a class distinction (commercial schools would be just fine for the regular Joe) and an effort to redefine business as a profession. As Conn aptly puts it, the driving force for both business employers and their prospective employees was “profession envy” (p. 37). After all, why should doctors and lawyers enjoy professional standing and not businessmen?
For reformers, the key contribution of B schools was to be a rigorous curriculum that would transform the business world. For the students who attended these schools, however, the courses they took were beside the point. They were looking for a pure credentialing effect, by acquiring a professional degree that would launch their careers in the top tiers of the business world. As Conn shows, the latter perspective won. He delights in recounting the repeated efforts by business associations and major foundations (especially Ford and Carnegie) to construct a serious curriculum for business schools. All of these reforms, he says, failed miserably. The business course of study retained a reputation for uncertain focus and academic mediocrity. The continuing judgment by outsiders was that “U.S. business education was terrible” (p. 76).
This is the “failure” in the book’s title. B schools never succeeded in doing what they promised as educational institutions. But, as he argues, this curricular failure did nothing to impede business schools’ organizational success. Students flocked to them in the search for the key to the executive suite and corporations used them to screen access to the top jobs. This became especially true in the 1960s, when business schools moved upscale by introducing graduate programs, of which the most spectacular success was the MBA. Nothing says professional like a graduate degree. And nothing gives academic credibility to a professional program like establishing a mandate for business professors to carry out academic research just like their peers in the more prestigious professional schools.
Conn says that instead of working effectively to improve the business world, B schools simply adopted the values of this world and dressed them up in professional garb. By the end of the twentieth century, corporations had shed any pretense of working in the public interest and instead asserted shareholder value as their primary goal. Business schools also jumped on this bandwagon. One result of this, the author notes, was to reinforce the rapacity of the new business ethos, sending an increasing share of business graduates into the realms of finance and consulting, where business is less a process of producing valuable goods and services than a game of monopoly played with other people’s money. His conclusion: “No other profession produces felons in quite such abundance” (p. 206).
Another result of this evolution in B schools was that they came to infect the universities that gave them a home. Business needed universities for status and credibility, and it thanked them by dragging them down to its own level. He charges that universities are increasingly governed liked private enterprises, with market-based incentives for colleges, departments, and individual faculty to produce income from tuition and research grants or else find themselves discarded like any other failed business or luckless worker. It’s like business schools have succeeded in redoing the university in their own image: “All the window dressing of academia without any of its substance” (p. 222).
That’s quite an indictment, but is it sufficient for conviction? I think not. One problem is that, from the very beginning, the reader gets the distinct feeling that the fix is in. The book opens with a scene in which the author’s colleagues in the history department come together for their monthly faculty meeting in a room filled with a random collection of threadbare couches and chairs. All of it came from the business school across campus when it bought new furniture. This scene is familiar to a lot of faculty in the less privileged departments on any campus, where the distinction between the top tier and the rest is all too apparent. In my school of education, we’re accustomed to our old, dingy barn of a building, all too aware of the elegant surroundings the business school enjoys in a brand new campus paid for by Phil Knight of swoosh fame.
But this entry point to the book signals a tone that tends to undermine the author’s argument throughout the book. It’s hard not to read this book as a polemic of resentment toward the nouveau riche — a humanist railing against the money-grubbers across campus who are despoiling the sanctity of academic life. This reading is not fair, since a lot of the author’s critique of business schools is correct; but it made me squirm a bit as I worked through the text. It also made the argument feel a little too inevitable. Read the title and the opening page and you already have a good idea of what is going to follow. Then you see that the first chapter is about the Wharton School and you just know where you’re headed. And sure enough, in the last chapter the author introduces Wharton’s most notorious graduate, Donald Trump. That second shoe took two hundred pages to drop, but the drop was inevitable.
In addition, by focusing relentlessly on the “sad history of American business schools,” Conn is unable to put this account within the larger context of the history of US higher education. For one thing, business didn’t introduce the market to higher ed; it was there from day one. Our current system emerged in the early nineteenth century, when a proliferation of undistinguished colleges popped up across the US, especially in small towns on the expanding frontier. These were private enterprises with corporate charters and no reliable source of funding from either church or state. They often emerged more as efforts to sell land (this is a college town so buy here) or plant the flag of a religious denomination than to advance higher learning. And they had to hustle to survive in a glutted market, so they became adept at mining student tuition and cultivating donors. Business schools are building on a long tradition of playing to the market. They just aren’t as concerned about covering their tracks as the rest of us.
David F. Labaree