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A Parody of Life in the Stanford MBA Classroom

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My primary faculty appointment at Stanford University is in the Engineering School, in the Department of Management Science and Engineering. I teach management classes, but the required classes that I teach are to engineers, not MBAs. I do teach some classes that have Stanford MBAs in them, especially in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (which everyone calls the Stanford d.school). Students in d.school classes mostly do their work in interdisciplinary teams and business is one of the disciplines. They don't just sit in class and listen -- they have to do things, like designing and testing programs for getting Wal-Mart employees excited about sustainability or building websites that help spread the open source web browser Firefox. I've had great experiences with Stanford MBAs in these classes -- with only a few exceptions. But this may be partly because I teach classes that students aren't required to take and our teaching teams have the luxury of picking among many applicants -- typically three or four times more students (including MBAs) apply to our classes than we can accept.

My colleagues at the business school do tell me, however, that frictions sometimes do arise between students and faculty in the MBA classes, especially in "core classes." These are the required classes that MBA students are required to take and that are -- too often -- staffed by young professors who are fantastic researchers, but have limited experience in business, and in many cases, limited teaching experience, too. There is a lot talk these days about what is wrong with business education and how to fix it. Check out Henry Mintzberg's book Managers, Not MBAs. This book runs a bit long for my tastes, but makes many compelling arguments -- one of the main ideas is that management education is of questionable use for people with limited work experience, but fairly valuable for people with a decade plus of experience. Mintzberg argues that people with substantial management experience can mix together the more abstract ideas in the classroom with their personal experiences in more constructive ways than those with little or no experience. Mintzberg's conclusion is consistent with what I've learned, as I have found that teaching so-called softer concepts like leadership, innovation, group dynamics, and the like is easier -- and appreciated more -- in experienced groups of senior executives than groups composed of people with little or no work experience. And many other colleagues of mine report that teaching leadership or group dynamics to CEOs is a lot easier than teaching it to a group of 24-year-old MBAs, because they have learned that they spend most of their time on "people problems."

In addition, a lot of controversy has been sparked by Jeff Pfeffer and Christina Fong's articles on the drawbacks of MBA education and changes that they suggest ought to be made -- check out this Business 2.0 article that summarizes some of the main points, or you can read the full text of their first article here. Pfeffer teaches business at Stanford and Fong teaches it at The University of Washington, so they are biting the hand that feeds them. They make an evidence-based case that what is taught in the business school classroom has little or no measurable effect on career outcomes, especially lifetime earnings. There is some evidence that getting an MBA increases lifetime earnings among people who attend a top 10 or so business schools, but not for people who go to the hundreds of less prestigious business schools. Getting an MBA appears to lead to lower lifetime earnings for people who go to less prestigious schools, because they lose as much as two years in the workforce. Pfeffer and Fong also suggest that, since there seems to be no relationship between the grades that students get in MBA programs and career success, the main advantage of going to a top business school is that it serves as an "on-ramp" to elite social networks -- not because of the content that students learn. Note that this means that getting into a top business school, but then being a lousy student in the classroom -- but networking like crazy -- may be rational behavior!

I am not quite as down on MBA education Mintzberg, Pfeffer, and Fong, perhaps because, as I said, my experiences with Stanford MBA's are so positive. But I confess that - although they are trying to be funny - there is far too much truth captured in this Youtube video called Truth in the Core that a group of Stanford MBAs just produced and posted on their experiences as MBAs at Stanford: The green teacher, the lack of mutual respect between students and faculty, the students sending emails rather than participating in class, the general lack of seriousness from people who will -- very quickly -- be leading major companies, and the heavy emphasis on socializing among students rather than class content are all real problems that too many business schools face and -- unfortunately -- too many aren't solving well-enough. Check it out. I think the students who made this parody meant it to be funny, but it made me squirm in the same way that watching that amazing TV show The Office does -- it is too close to reality for me to laugh much.

Finally, to end on a positive note, there are lot of changes being made to improve MBA education, including a massive redesign in the classes taught and requirements. Plus, to reiterate, although there may be some strange dynamics at times, the business school professors I know generally care deeply about teaching and helping their students, and -- despite the negative stereotypes -- most Stanford MBAs I know are hard working and dedicated to learning, and a very small percentage of them qualify as certified assholes.