Sunday, January 17, 2010

Why B-Schools Should be Moved to Community Colleges

Decision making processes and institutional planning in higher ed have been devastated in recent years by the application of "market logic" to program evaluation and curricular management. On the one hand, sciences, engineering, medicine, and the like have flourished through their capacity to connect to the private sector with an eye towards patents, technology transfer, or cashing in as both insurers and medical providers in the health care sector. In fact, in the midst of the University of California's truly significant budget crisis, replete with furloughs (read: salary cuts), Mark Yudof put it this way:

Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We're doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who's going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that's where we're running into trouble.

Yudof, of course, doesn't mention that the English departments will have contact with every single student enrolled in the UC system, you know, of the tuition-payers. (OK, so in the UC system they don't pay tuition but rather fees, still, you get the point.) Bringing the students in doesn't, however, work for course correction to the transformation of the higher ed accountability. It doesn't because, now, the students are consumers, customers, and need to be treated as such-- where efficiencies in the university all point to smoothing the customer experience and providing a value-added endpoint product (degree). The confluence of these two tendencies has only been heightened, I think, in the midst of our current economic crisis, as the university is increasingly turned to as a font for infinite job training. Practical job training. Professional job training. In fact, I think at least some administrators really want to see higher ed turned into one giant business school.

Which is why reading this piece in the New York Times last weekend left me wryly amused. So, it turns out that, lo and behold, business schools were completely unprepared for the crash and have had really no answer to it because they didn't realize critical thinking skills were important. And figuring that out is a eureka moment, revelatory. You must be kidding me, right? The article begins with one such revelation ten years ago by the current dean of the University of Toronto's School of Business:

A DECADE ago, Roger Martin, the new dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had an epiphany. The leadership at his son’s elementary school had asked him to meet with its retiring principal to figure out how it could replicate her success.

He discovered that the principal thrived by thinking through clashing priorities and potential options, rather than hewing to any pre-planned strategy — the same approach taken by the managing partner of a successful international law firm in town.

“The ‘Eureka’ moment was when I could draw a data point between a hotshot, investment bank-oriented star lawyer and an elementary school principal,” Mr. Martin recalls. “I thought: ‘Holy smokes. In completely different situations, these people are thinking in very similar ways, and there may be something special about this pattern of thinking.’ ”

That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.

The fact that this revelation hadn't occurred to anyone in the B-School world before 1999, and is only catching on now, is not only a necessary but also sufficient condition to argue that BBA and MBA programs should be moved to the vocational wing of the US post-secondary- the community college. The president has called for a renewal of commitment to community college instruction, which I wholeheartedly support. A good place to start would be to move B-Schools onto community college campuses. They're certainly good at the public/private joint ventures necessary to get $$ into higher ed these days, so it would be a boon for all involved.