THE BLOG
07/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

B-School Professors, Not Students, Are To Blame

Rivers of ink have been spilled blaming MBA graduates for the credit crisis. We are tired of reading how many of the disgraced bank executives that presided the institutions which dumb, ill-fated punts sank the world were endowed with the formerly-glorious degree. We are once more relentlessly reminded that Enron was also commandeered by MBAs. Some unrelenting Bush-bashers have not missed the opportunity to remind us that, yes, the former Prez has a diploma by Harvard Business School on the wall too. If all those havoc-wreakers have the MBA in common, then the MBA must be a very very bad thing, right? Let's scour the land in search of anyone sporting the three-letter acronym on their resumes and duly hang them high. Let's have our revenge for the economic and financial mess that has destroyed so many lives, let's give MBAs hell!

Sadly for the bloodthirsty avengers, the actual truth is that the MBA per se did not cause the mayhem (though there are certainly tons of problems with the degree and many of its holders). Most pundits and (much more damagingly sinister) b-school administrators and faculty members are laying the blame for the disaster on the greed-obsessed, capitalism-revering, ethics-light behavior on the part of financial players, which the latter supposedly picked up while earning their MBAs. According to this line of finger-pointing, Wall Street MBAs were too greedy, too capitalistic, too unethical. If only their classroom training had worshiped money-making a bit less, if only it had emphasized community values a tad more intensely. Time to imbue the curriculums with courses on responsible citizenry and unbounded ethicality (maybe b-schools can indoctrinate MBAs into always ceding their bus seat to old ladies?); that, goes the argument, will prevent any future similar mishap.

But, if we are fair, we must admit that MBAs are being unfairly targeted, thus making the proposed solutions not really preemptive. MBAs did no more and no less than what a typical Wall Streeter has the potential to do. Once they receive that diploma and cash in their sign-on bonuses, MBAs became businesspeople, thus displaying the same potential weaknesses as any other businessperson (MBA or not, high school graduate or not): temptation, avarice, corners-cutting, cheating. The MBAs involved in the crisis found themselves in such unsavory position not because of their academic credentials but because of their (degree-neutral) actions as businesspeople. I mean, it's not like the MBA-endowed Merrill Lynch traders who gorged on impossibly toxic securities based their reckless decisions on anything they were taught years prior by some taciturn professor. "Man, b-school made me so greedy and unethical that I had no alternative but to purchase $100 billion of Subprime CDOs" was most certainly not the rationale behind the actions of the punters anymore than his HBS brainwashing was the main motivation behind Jeffrey Skilling's peccadilloes in Houston.

B-school administrators and faculty (together with naïve outsiders) are simply assigning too much weight to what goes on inside their hallowed grounds. Maybe that's why they are blaming their students and the gaps in their education for the worst crisis since the 1929 Crash. These people assume that what MBAs are taught at b-school dictates their future professional activities, and nothing could be further from the truth, especially in the case of finance, particularly in the case of trading activity. I know, I studied and taught at top b-schools. B-schools arrogantly believe that what they teach affects graduates throughout every single day of their lives, but in fact MBAs can't forget what they were taught soon enough (and employers too typically assume that they didn't learn much; simply witness the contents of the training programs at investment banks). Note to administrators and profs: no, what you taught (or didn't teach) MBAs did not cause the crisis; your indoctrination is not that important, is not that relevant, is not that influential, not by a long shot. Once your students receive their diplomas, they, frankly, forget about you. As they should, as grown-up businesspeople.

It's not as if having forced all MBA students to take a course on helping the blind cross the street or on the virtuousness of poverty would have prevented any of the financial and economic meltdowns that the world has witnessed. Besides, the current crisis has little to do with ethics or unlawful behavior, except perhaps in the subprime loan origination process, which of course happens to be precisely the area where no MBAs could be found. This was no Enron. Wall Street simply made huge toxic, yet entirely lawful, bets and it lost.

Rather than (presumptuously) blaming their students for acting in ways that many other businesspeople would naturally choose (another note to faculty: not all the people who caused losses were MBAs), b-school bosses should take a hard look at themselves. If they want to search for truly guilty parties they should leave their students alone and fixate on the mirror in front of them. It's the theories concocted and sponsored by the theory-adoring professors that can cause the real troubles, and that did cause trouble this time and in the past. Theoretical concoctions played a decisive role in the unleashing of the current crisis, as they have, by the way, in all the worst market disasters since 1929. B-schools, by churning out, promoting, and endorsing the theoretical method (over any other considerations) are responsible. By endowing the use of (often deleterious, almost always flawed) analytical tools with untold respectability and legitimacy, the current b-school status quo puts us all in danger. That's the truly unseemly and unjustified behavior, not MBAs behaving (for better or worse) as businesspeople.