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How Business Schools Lost Their Way–And Why Theological Seminaries Had Better Pay Attention

Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole agree that business schools are on the wrong track. Bennis and O’Toole are in a position to know, since Bennis serves as University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles and O’Toole is Research Professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations. Together, they combine years of expertise and experience and their indictment of business schools is direct and unambiguous.

In “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” published in the April 2005 edition of the Harvard Business Review, these two authors address what they see as the central failing of graduate schools supposedly committed to preparing business leaders–these schools hire faculty who have little or no experience in the actual world of business.

Bennis and O’Toole are well-known in the worlds of management and leadership. Bennis, who also serves as founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at USC, is the author of a series of best-selling works on leadership. O’Toole is an expert in organizational dynamics. In this article, they get right to the heart of the problem they so skillfully diagnose.

In the academic world, the automatic reflex to any call for change is a review of the curriculum. Nevertheless, Bennis and O’Toole are convinced that problems with the curriculum are “the effect, not the cause of what ails the modern business school.”

In their view, “The actual cause of today’s crisis in management education is far broader in scope and can be traced to a dramatic shift in the culture of business schools. During the past several decades many leading B schools have quietly adopted an inappropriate, and ultimately self-defeating, model of academic excellence. Instead of measuring themselves in terms of the competence of their graduates, or by how well their faculties understand important drivers of business performance, they measure themselves almost solely by the rigor of their scientific research.”

This approach, identified by the authors as the “scientific model,” is based in the belief that business is primarily an academic discipline. “In fact, business is a profession, akin to medicine and the law,” the authors correct, “and business schools are professional schools-or should be.” This statement is not intended to diminish the importance nor to lower the status of business as a professional discipline. “Like other professions, business calls upon the work of many academic disciplines. For medicine, these disciplines include biology, chemistry, and psychology; for business, they include mathematics, economics, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. The distinction between a profession and an academic discipline is crucial. In our view, no curricular reforms will work until the scientific model is replaced by a more appropriate model rooted in the special requirements of a profession.”

Bennis and O’Toole are clearly on to something of importance here. Attention to the curriculum without understanding the faculty factor amounts to little more than rearranging the furniture. After all, the faculty teach the curriculum, and faculty expectations drive everything from evaluations of student performance to evaluation of faculty peers.

Bennis and O’Toole get right to the heart of the problem. “Virtually none of today’s top-ranked business schools would hire, let alone promote, a tenure-track professor whose primary qualification is managing an assembly plant, no matter how distinguished his or her performance. Nor would they hire professors who write articles only for practitioner reviews, like this one. Instead, the best B schools aspire to the same standards of academic excellence that hard disciplines embrace-an approach sometimes waggishly referred to ‘physics envy.’”

This concern is immediately transferable to the rest of the university, where, as these authors understand, the university is understood to exist “primarily to support the scholar’s interests.” Armed with their own experience in the academy, these authors understand the equation. “For the most part, universities accept this arrangement and the intellectual premise on which it rests: namely, that universities help society advance by supporting scientists who push back the boundaries of knowledge. They leave the practical implications to others.”

Faculty publications reveal what professors believe to be important–or, at the very least, what they believe their peers understand to be important. Practitioners in the field, however, are not likely to be impressed with much of what business professors write and produce. Bennis and O’Toole cite a “renowned CEO” who has referred to academic publishing as a “vast wasteland” in terms of usefulness in business. Among business professors, the pressure to publish in fields of strictly quantitative analysis is powerful and seductive, even though much of this “research” has little application in the real world. Getting articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals, regardless of practical value, is one of the necessary rungs on the professor’s ladder toward tenure. Writing for publications such as the Harvard Business Review–considered to be a journal for “practitioners”–does not impress tenure committees.

Bennis and O’Toole aim their sights at the hiring and tenure processes. “Deans may say they want practitioner-oriented research, but their schools reward scientific research designed to please academics. By recruiting and promoting those who publish in discipline-based journals, business schools are creating faculties filled with individuals whose main professional aspiration is a career devoted to science.”

The authors delivered a devastating blow in one concise sentence: “Today, it is possible to find tenured professors of management who have never set foot inside a real business, except as customers.”

As they explain, “the road to tenure does not run through field work in businesses.” Younger scholars are encouraged to avoid too much contact with practitioners and practical issues and “to concentrate their research on narrow, scientific subjects, at least until late in their quest for tenure.”

This devastating critique of business schools comes as corporations have experienced a series of devastating embarrassments, financial losses, and charges of fraud. Furthermore, the deans of these schools are hearing from business leaders who are tired of interviewing business school graduates who seem to have no connection to the actual world of business and little interest in the practical demands of management. Bennis and O’Toole are absolutely right in laying this problem at the feet of the faculty. Driven by envy of other academic disciplines, professional school faculty often feel themselves to be second-class citizens within the context of the university and its academic culture. In order to overcome this, faculty fall prey to the temptation to reconceive their professional responsibility in terms of purely academic discourse and research. The fact that business school faculties include tenured professors “who have never set foot inside a real business, except as customers,” spells eventual disaster. But is this insight limited to business schools?

Not hardly. Theological seminaries can succumb to the same pressures and seminary faculties can be seduced by the same temptations. As in the world of business schools, seminaries are tempted to redefine their mission in strictly academic terms. The lure of academic respectability and the enticements of the academic culture exert a magnetic pull toward those who have given themselves to the teaching profession. Understanding this fact is a first step toward preserving the seminary’s mission.

Theological seminaries should be unembarrassed to hold the stewardship of a primary mission that is irreducibly directed to the practice of ministry. Of course, there is a vital and non-negotiable scholarly dimension to this academic task, and the training of ministers requires nothing less than the highest standards of academic excellence. Nevertheless, the presidents, administrators, and governing boards of theological seminaries must be ever alert to the patterns of this seduction and the ease with which a theological seminary can turn itself into a think tank devoted to purely academic disciplines rather than a seminary dedicated to the training of Christian ministers, missionaries, and church leaders.

The fact that a tenured professor in a business school may never have set foot inside a real business, except in the role of a customer, is a genuine scandal. How can a person with such limited practical experience understand the real challenges of management and business leadership?

This is even more true for the faculty of theological seminaries. It should be unthinkable that the faculty in a theological seminary would include professors of such limited experience in church life. And yet, I have interviewed applicants for faculty positions who, when asked about their church involvement and ministry experience, have virtually nothing to offer. The task of seminary leaders is to make certain that persons of such minimal church experience and commitment are not offered faculty positions in our schools.

The academic world is, by its nature, a profoundly insular and self-referential environment. The academic guilds control much of the academic process, and faculty power is virtually unbridled in some institutions. Theological seminaries must be fully accountable to the local church and must see their task as centered in the training of ministers for the actual tasks and challenges of preaching, teaching, evangelism, and church leadership.

The pastor’s calling requires a level of learning and scholarship that goes far beyond what should be expected in any other professional school. After all, the high calling of preaching and teaching the Word of God is a stewardship that goes beyond any other earthly profession. Churches should expect and demand that their pastors will receive the very highest levels of training in biblical studies, theology, church history, and various fields of classical theological disciplines.

Yet, taken in themselves, this is simply not enough. True Christian scholarship, dedicated to the training of Christian ministers, must be devoted to and measured by what actually happens in the local church. Otherwise, the theological seminary will be more of a curse than a blessing to the local church and its denomination.

Warren Bennis and James O’Toole have issued what they hope will be a wake-up call for business schools. Inadvertently, they have also sent an important message to theological seminaries, lest we lose our way as well.