Professional Schools and Social Responsibility

I have spent my academic career in a professional school and, as a result, I continue to read new studies that emerge about this aspect of higher education. Duff McDonald, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite (New York: Harper Business, 2017) is a lengthy recent addition to this genre. McDonald, a freelance writer and editor, presents a rich, detailed portrait of this important business school, one he contends has become the center of Harvard University. While I think it could have used some editing, it really did not need to be so long, it is still worth the effort for anyone interested in this aspect of higher education.

McDonald provides a detailed history of this school over its century, its changing purpose, search for ideas and principles, and societal influence. For example, the much touted and well-known case method is placed in its institutional context, showing both its value and weaknesses as a pedagogical approach. We also obtain information about how HBS has been connected to the management consulting industry “has been joined at the hip to the business school complex . . . almost since the founding days of each” part of it (p. 199). We learn about the struggles to include women in the faculty, the uneven results in educating leaders and entrepreneurs, and the uphill battle to promote a social conscience for the school.

A topic of particular interest to me is how the HBS has handled, or in some ways, mishandled, business ethics. It is also a topic that fascinates McDonald, who states, “Over the course of its hundred-plus year history, one thing that the Harvard Business School has never figured out is how to truly integrate ethics into the curriculum” (p. 429). This is a statement that could be made, of course, about many professional schools. The first full course on the topic was not introduced into the HBS until 2003. A preoccupation with business school rankings and helping its graduates make money seems to have pushed social responsibility and accountability matters to the wayside. McDonald laments the “marriage of profits and politics.” He concludes by stating, that if the HBS wants to be “relevant – to be important – to the future well-being of us all, then it’s time they stopped pretending to make the world a better place and actually started doing so” (p. 578).

The Golden Passport will make anyone involved in a professional school reflect on what it is doing and how it benefits society. Some reviewers have complained that the book is too critical of the HBS. However, I doubt that it is.

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