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Business Class

Inside the strange, uniform politics of today’s MBA programs—and what it says about America's elites

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Students in the country’s top MBA programs pride themselves on their open-mindedness. This is, after all, what they’ve been sold: American business schools market their ability to train the kinds of broadly competent, intellectually receptive people who will help solve the problems of a global economy.

But in truth, MBA programs are not the open forums advertised in admissions brochures. Behind this façade, they are ideological institutions committed to a strict blend of social liberalism and economic conservatism. Though this fusion may be the favorite of American elites—the kinds of people who might repeat that tired line “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative”—it takes a strange form in business school. Elite business schooling is tailored to promote two types of solutions to the big problems that arise in society: either greater innovation or freer markets. Proposals other than what’s essentially more business are brushed aside, or else patched over with a type of liberal politics that’s heavy on rhetorical flair but light on relevance outside privileged circles.

It is in this closed ideological loop that we wannabe masters of the universe often struggle to think clearly about the common good or what it takes to achieve it. Today’s MBA programs, insofar as they churn out graduates riveted to this worldview, limit the vision of future leaders at a time when public dissatisfaction with business and its institutions makes our complacency a danger.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a class discussion about a new app called Nesterly, which was hatched here at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management (where I attend as an MBA student) and released last summer. The app serves millennials in search of affordable housing by linking them with seniors who, for a reduced rate, will rent spare rooms in exchange for help around the house. It’s a neat idea, and the app has garnered funding and attention—enough to make it a topic in class.

As students dissected Nesterly’s business model, however, we each made the same omission. Lost in the talk of user interfaces and customer segments and pricing strategies was an appropriate nod to context, political or economic. The platform’s supply-demand symmetry hadn’t arisen in a vacuum, but from an economy where housing price inflation and debt held by the young had met its match in record financial insecurity and isolation among the old. A generation lampooned for living with its parents was settling into grandpa’s garage apartment, and none of us considered it noteworthy.

Business school instruction is routinely blinkered in this way. An MBA class will consider a business issue—here, a specific company—in isolation. Its challenges are delineated; its society-level implications are waved away. The principals’ overriding goal—profit maximization—is assumed. With mechanical efficiency, students then answer the question of how to move forward. Individual choices are abstracted into numbers or modeled as graphs. If it becomes necessary to show the human side of an issue, a case study—that hollow hallmark of business school curriculum—will do the trick.

When the subject in question is benign, these exercises aren’t problematic, just technically challenging. Yet there are times when the topic of study widens, and an inquiry into a business issue raises questions about business in general, and what our economic system should be calibrated to incentivize and allow. These instances lay bare the limits of the MBA worldview, as students shy away from evaluating the economy’s moral outcomes or from challenging a shareholder-centered capitalism in the places it goes clearly wrong. This holds even when we’re confronted with its more ruthless side, marked by a tendency to reward unethical behavior like exploitation or avarice.

Take a recent class I had on the Harvard Business School case study about sustainability at Nike, which is among the handful of cases most often used to show a business doing right by the public. It tells how, in 2012, the shoe giant got serious about corporate responsibility, voluntarily banning labor abuses and toxic pollutants at its contracted factories around the world.

However, executives had sat on these reforms for over a decade. They were finally moved by two internal catalysts, vice presidents Hannah Jones and Eric Sprunk, who themselves felt mounting pressure from consumer groups. The changes, when announced, were defended in terms of shareholder rather than moral value. “This innovation drives growth, drives profitability ... and by the way, risk management,” the case quotes CFO Don Blair.

Our professor opened the lecture with a question that’s standard for this kind of classwork: If you were an executive here, what would you have done?

Students launched into polished monologues about how they would’ve been quicker to protect stakeholders, not just shareholders, citing tropes like capitalism’s need of a conscience and their own preferences for ethically made products. This chorus was broken nearly an hour in, when a classmate raised a hand and made a novel announcement: “Everyone who’s speaking should have to put their shoes on the table and tell us where and how they’re made. I don’t think anyone would push for these rules if they hurt the bottom line. That’s a good way to lose your job.” The classroom briefly quieted under a sense of shared recognition, and the subject soon changed.

A comment like this would prompt rather than close conversation if elite MBA programs embraced their missions to cultivate open-minded stewards of the economy. But in their current forms as managerial training camps, they lock students in a double bind. We can’t ignore shareholder capitalism’s obvious ethical lapses, but we also don’t entertain anything like systemic analyses of it. To square this circle, we pretend honest managers can autonomously pursue aims other than profit, and convince ourselves through largely performative “debates” that we’re exactly these kinds of people. Rarely do we admit that incentives can override principles, or that the duty to be a good executive doesn’t automatically align with the call to be a good person. Rarer still do we talk about how to fix this misalignment through changes—whether to institutions public or private—that might burden the managerial class (in this case, government oversight or consumer protection could be warranted).

Hence, even a few degrees removed from the action, our discussions of how to fix many problems in the economy are framed by an Overton window so tight that all they yield is rhetoric. This holds in lessons about specific challenges, like how to compel your company to stop exploiting workers, just as it does for more general concerns, such as climate change or automation’s effect on blue-collar employment. At top schools, the study of these critical topics is also mostly relegated to separate programs for Sustainability and Social Enterprise—as if every business didn’t have some impact on society and the environment.

In his 2017 book on business school The Golden Passport, which focuses on Harvard, Duff McDonald names this as the central failure of today’s MBA programs. “Business educators,” he observes, “have abandoned their academic role, which, aside from educating future generations, is to generate the possibility of critique and train students into doing it themselves.” This critical training should be the minimum for what are, after all, graduate schools and not the outsourced recruitment centers for Corporate America.

“Business has lost sight of its true function in society,” concludes McDonald, “which is to provide a mechanism by which we can work together and with our environment to achieve our common goals. It is not, and never has been, to simply make a profit.” Ironically then, in acquiescing to shareholder capitalism as it exists now, MBA programs are rendering themselves irrelevant to some of today’s most pressing economic issues.

Paired with a conservative approach to the economy is a unified leftward bent on social issues. MBA students may be dealing into the financial system of a New Gilded Age, but our social policy positions reflect a far more progressive era. This consensus is nearly total, even among international students from traditional societies; it’s also more fervently believed than in any institution I’ve seen, even other liberal arts graduate departments. Thus, while it’s difficult to advocate any idea that might disturb shareholder capitalism, it’s near impossible to find students with outspoken conservative views on issues from immigration to transgender bathroom rights.

The uniformity isn’t expressed the way that you might see in one of those breathless, campus-PC-run-amok takes that now keep the likes of David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan counting placards. Rather, it’s targeted to the professional world and therefore fairly tame, couched in appeals to “diversity” and “inclusion,” though equally fixated on the politics of personal identity. The question of how to resolve a political issue, or, more often, of what issues are worth resolving, draws legitimacy from the race, ethnicity, or gender of those implicated in it. None of this is very unique to people in MBA programs, rather the norm for any group of young cosmopolitans in 2018.

What’s striking, however, is that what counts as “progressive” here almost never crosses class lines. Not once have I heard a discussion of unions while in business school. The minimum wage isn’t a hot topic either. Our political concerns instead trend upward and toward the symbolic; equal representation is the lodestar. And where this “representing” is deemed to matter is instructive, because while it’s obvious people want to be represented at the top, our focus is on the highest of the high echelons of American business: The most commonly cited stats are those that show alarming female and minority underrepresentation among Fortune 500 CEOs and in high-paying STEM jobs. These concerns seek to redress serious wrongs and biases, but one can’t escape the sense that the metrics by which MBAs measure “progress” can become totemic: our version of wanting to see more representative Marvel superheroes while forgetting about the extras’ paychecks.

Our total ideology resembles what philosopher John Gray has coined “hyper-liberalism,” a “mixture of bourgeois careerism with virtue-signaling self-righteousness,” which lends its adherents, who mostly pick it up in the cloistered world of academia, “an illusory sense of having a leading role in society.” The personal is political, yes, but we’ve also made it the whole of politics, in large part because we keep depersonalized economic issues off the table. To patch over the problems of shareholder capitalism, we lean on cultural signifiers and hope they justify the role business leaders play in the world.

Students become like major corporations that sponsor Pride floats for employees or air heartening commercials of workers’ biracial families, then adopt practices that make those peoples’ lives more precarious. We’re the global fast food chain that makes a showy celebration of International Women’s Day, but still underpays female workers, or the firm that sponsors a “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street while, you guessed it, cheating its female employees. We’re the startups that use trendy empowerment memes to excuse, even valorize, new forms of privation and indignity for contracted workers. Identity politics, in other words, creates the ethical alibi for when businesses mistreat vulnerable people.

This apparent dissonance may not feel like dissonance at all to a group raised comfortably under the neoliberal consensus. For most of our lifetimes, elites of both parties have embraced this economic approach, tinkering around its margins and justifying it with well-worn conservative appeals to meritocracy or liberal ones to diversity. For MBA students today, this lets us overlook our economy’s yawning rich-poor gap and eroding upward mobility for the masses, as long as a diverse enough set of high achievers can climb the narrow ladders from top university classrooms to corner offices on Sand Hill Road or Wall Street.

Business schools’ campaign for better representation there, worthy though it may be, is a Potemkin Village that covers the grim contradictions of our economy, and a chance for the powerful to enact morality plays without challenging their constructed social, political, and economic power. A number of commentators—notably George Packer in his book The Unwinding—have begun to circle one of the massive questions of our day: Why has the rise in social equality over the last generation not come with increasing economic prospects for the middle class?

MBA students should be alive to this question and its possible correctives, given the unprecedented levels of institutional mistrust and economic anxiety now coursing through and wobbling the body politic. But more often we’re content to use the first fact to patch over the second. Ask today’s business school student to describe the world of his or her dreams, and you’ll likely hear a description of the current system—just with more representative figures in positions of power.

What does this ideological alignment amount to? Electorally, MBA students have become something of a voting bloc. In the 2016 presidential election, Harvard Business School polled students on their choice of candidate. A full 85 percent supported Hillary Clinton while 3 percent backed Donald Trump (for reference: 32 percent of voters went for Trump across deep-deep-blue Massachusetts). Up the street at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, I’d wager that the Clinton-Trump gap was just as wide, if the funereal atmosphere at our election night watch party was any indication.

At the president’s own alma mater, Wharton, over 4,000 students, alumni, and other signatories published an open letter expressing outrage at his election. “An intolerant America is a less productive, less innovative, and less competitive America,” it concluded, reflecting both facets of the ideology I have detailed above.

Beyond his affront to our social values, most apparent in his xenophobia and hostility to empowered women, Trump represents a potentially seismic economic disruption for elites. Careful investors know how to price risk. It is precisely those with a lot to lose who will shun gambles in their choice of presidents, whether the eventual dice roll be in the form of economic populism or nuclear war. (The fact that safe-bet businessman Mitt Romney got 32 percent of the Harvard MBA vote in 2012—on par with the statewide number and above trends in similar demographic cohorts—only further validates this.)

Yet if it’s clear why MBA students would be alienated from a GOP now captured by Trumpism, it’s nevertheless curious that this privileged club, often typecast as conservative, feels so comfortable in America’s liberal party. The Democratic agenda, at least in the last election cycle, very closely resembled our own. No wonder then that vast swaths of the electorate saw it as elitist in its economic priorities and cultural concerns: a party happy to outsource average Americans’ jobs while finger-wagging at them for not keeping pace with an evolving set of social codes. To reclaim its place as the party of the middle class, Democrats could do worse than rebalance their platform in favor of appeals to the immediate, material concerns of ordinary people.

Business schools today have their own considerations about ideological alignment. It’s foolish to expect any group not to guard its own interests, and I suspect part of the reason MBA students are so committed to this worldview is that it’s a fairly morally undemanding one, which still awards a potent aura of righteousness.

But privilege confers responsibility beyond itself, and one need not invoke pitchforks marching up the eighteenth fairway to show why MBA students have self-interested reasons for rethinking our ideology. The general public increasingly mistrusts big business and economic elites, and for good reason. For most of the country, the decade since 2008 has been a lost one; for us it’s been a moment for exponential growth—in new technologies, in the trappings of bourgeois life (from prestige TV to health crazes to artisan coffee), and finally in the market itself. A more dynamic approach to addressing society’s problems, one which challenges students’ assumptions and moral priorities, might propel business schools to a more credible status in the public square, and allow them to finally become incubators of principled economic leaders rather than managers. It could also show that the would-be well-off feel an obligation to the worse-off, and that we take seriously the role business decisions can play in improving their lots.