Bloomberg had a odd article on the varying fortunes of Harvard MBAs (and some alumni of other Harvard graduate programs). It duly notes that they range from unquestioned successes like Lou Gerstner to more controversial figures, such as Jeff Skilling, Paul Bilzerian, Henry Paulson,, Stan O’Neal, and of course, George W. Bush
Generalizing about HBS graduates is tricky. It is the largest graduate school program in the world, turning out roughly 900 MBAs a year, which almost guarantees some heterogeneity in the population, Thus it might be more useful as an indicator of business behavior generally, in part because force of numbers gives Harvard MBAs some sway, in part because the program more so than others sets out to create CEOs, and finally because only a few MBA programs, such as Yale School of Management’s, are highly distinctive (Yale has a strong emphasis on not-for-profit management.
After the accounting scandals of 2002, where Skilling and other Harvard MBAs played high-profile roles, the school studied what it could do to improve the conduct of its graduates. It concluded that students’ ethical compasses were set before they got there, which one could view either as accurate or a way of punting. Thus, the school gave some motherhood statements about changing its admissions policies.
So what has happened? Consider this section of the Bloomberg article:
Harvard Business School’s two-year program instills confidence “to go out and aim high and to think you can work on the world’s stage,” said Scott Snook, an associate professor at the school. Yet, not all students mature psychologically while at Harvard, he said.
Snook studied 50 students from before they enrolled until they graduated in 2006. Using psychological tests and interviews, he found that one-third were still, in respects, stuck in adolescence, and had trouble empathizing.
Snook found another third inclined to define right or wrong in terms of what everybody else is doing. That might explain why even well-educated executives have fallen prey to the subprime- mortgage debacle, he said. Snook said the study will be published this year.
“They can’t really step back and take a critical view,” he said. “They’re totally defined by others and by the outcomes of what they’re doing.”
The subprime-lending spree shows that Harvard and other elite schools fail to mold managers who look beyond self- interest, said Rakesh Khurana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School.
“Business schools as an institution have not effectively addressed this issue of creating a profession that has the capacity for self-regulation,” said Khurana, author of “From Higher Aims to Hired Hands” (Princeton University Press, 2007).
Hhm. It looks that post 2002 study was wrong, or that Harvard did a lousy job of changing its admissions policies.
A final tidbit:
Bush, the first U.S. president with an MBA, has written that Harvard gave him “the tools and the vocabulary” of the business world. Now, in his final year in office, Bush faces a slumping economy and an unpopular war. His approval rating is 32 percent, according to USA Today/Gallup Poll research in March.
“Usually, if you’ve got a sitting president who graduated from your school, you’d talk about it all the time,” Snook said. With Bush, he said, “It’s almost studiously ignored.”