A Profession?

September 4th, 2017

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The MBA Oath is designed to turn business into a “true profession.” Colin Barry, a 2012 Harvard Business School grad, thinks it’s bunk. Is he right?

In the midst of the 2009 global economic implosion, a group of Harvard Business School students pledged to behave in an ethical fashion. They created The MBA Oath, a “Hippocratic Oath for Managers” to “transform the field of management into a true profession.” Graduating students at many b-schools signed the social contract,

Colin Barry is one of them. But now he thinks the MBA Oath is a bad idea. The 2012 HBS grad says it’s flawed in design, inadequate in execution, and destined to fail.

He’s right on design. Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes that business is not–nor has it ever been–a profession. Profession comes from the idea that work ought to profess or affirm something true about the world we live in. Medicine and law fit this definition. Business never has.

Medicine professes that human life is sacred. Same with law. Business? The word business derives from the Middle Ages. It means being busy. What’s sacred about that?

Science became the new sacred after the Civil War. With more than half of all Harvard College graduates going into business, the pressure was on Harvard’s president, Charles W. Eliot, to establish a school of business based on science. Eliot ignored these requests for almost 30 years. He said such a project would be an anathema to the university’s educational purpose of teaching students how to live worthy lives.

Money talks, however. Large donations began pouring into Harvard for the purpose of establishing a business school. Adding fuel to the fire was The Visible Hand by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. He sought to replace Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” with the “visible hand” of scientific efficiency. The book was called a “Darwinian triumph.”[1] The mechanical replaced the mystical as science replaced theology. Professions were “scientific.”

Harvard capitulated with the founding of its Business School in 1908. Seeking “scientific” legitimacy, it adopted Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management. Taylor was Darwinian, believing workers were animals. They ought to be managed. Scripture disagrees. Humans are not animals and not to be managed. But scripture was passé.

A few years later, Wallace Donham, second dean of HBS, made it his explicit objective to raise business to the status of professions such as the clergy or law. Literary and social critic John Jay Chapman openly ridiculed this professionalizing aspiration:

My friends, the truth is that business is not a profession; and no amount of rhetoric and no expenditure in circulars can make it into a profession. A school of Business means a school where you learn to make money.

HBS grads did make money. Lots of it. They gave a lot to HBS. George F. Baker’s gift of $5 million in 1924 was greeted ridicule from a Harvard College graduate:

Fair Harvard! I hear that you’ve been such a fool

As to start a ridiculous Business School

Where ‘Grocery 2’ and ‘Butchery 4’

Take the place of the classics you taught us of yore.

In his book Universities, published in 1930, Abraham Flexner examined 15 volumes of case studies published by HBS. He said the content of business education possessed neither an ethical nor a social dimension. Flexner claimed to find “not the faintest glimmer of social, ethical, philosophic, historic or cultural interest” in any of them.

I witnesses this firsthand when two businessmen, Christians, asked me to help them in launching a private equity firm. They wanted to maximize efficiencies, profits, and give a lot to ministries. I was happy to help but suggested there are moral limits to market efficiencies. Blank stares. Not the faintest glimmer of ethical and cultural interest in them.

Today, a b-school grad knows a lot about spreadsheets but little about Shakespeare. Profession has come to mean high-paying job. Doctor. Lawyer. CEO. But this often reduces the rest of workforce to grunts. It’s no coincidence that shabby treatment of workers gave rise to a holiday called Labor Day.

I pray for a new generation of business leaders who might become professionals. But they’d have to take seriously a moral universe that informs all aspects of work. Businesses would seek to make a difference for good—not just make a buck. Colin Barry noted that the very mission of Harvard Business School is remarkable in its ambivalence about the moral responsibility of its graduates. “We proclaim that ‘we educate leaders who make a difference in the world,’ but we will not be bold enough to stipulate that our graduates should make a difference for good.” That’s why Barry is probably right regarding the MBA Oath. It’s probably bunk.

[1] Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 24.

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5 Responses to “A Profession?”

  1. John Rankin says:

    And here in Oxford, where I am preently studying, “profession” is from the old English for a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Professors had to first be professors of the faith.

  2. Marc Horton says:

    Unrestrained greed, leveraged by the science of business management, is a cause of serious domestic and global problems. Without moral and ethical underpinnings, big business is dangerous in many ways.

  3. Byron Borger says:

    Really fabulous, Mike, very interesting, especially as you do what you do so well — is it your profession? — to summarize good insights from the history of ideas and institutions. Good and helpful.

    However, you showed why in the history of the worldviews shaping b-schools there isn’t a “moral universe.” So maybe the good guys who created “The MBA Oath” are to be commended for raising a good question, or offering a starting manifesto. You strongly suggested that Collin Barry is right, that it is “flawed in design, inadequate in execution, and destined to fail.” Maybe so, but although you gave us the contours of the landscape that will make this project difficult, you didn’t say what was flawed or inadequate about it. I think this was unfair of you. To call it “bunk” is disrespectful — I assume you know the primary author, who used to work at Keller’s church and is a very sharp guy — and sidesteps the issue of what is bunky about it. I’m scratching my head, wanting to see what you say not just about the reductionism of science in high education and Taylor and such, but what is wrong with the Oath. I read the link to Collin Barry’s piece and found it inadequate at best. Bring it.

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Byron:

    Good points. Flawed in execution because most businesses don’t have guilds, for example. As for “doomed to fail,” I should have mentioned that, in the gospel, nothing can ever be assumed to be doomed to fail. Colin Barry is wrong on that count.

    How’s that, my friend, for “bringing it?”

  5. Byron Borger says:

    Well, the most likely “doomed to fail” bit I get, since all our efforts are uphill battles, and your recalling that nothing is impossible with God, is fair enough. But the bigger question I have is the one about what is wrong with the plan, the idea of it, and the execution of it. I’m not sure the oath is tied to a ‘guild’ nor is it pertinent to determine if business is a profession or not. If getting MBA students to do a promise not to harm, and nurture a more complete vision of the reason for business tied to the common good, if they take that seriously, might that not be a fine first step?

    In the first section of the book “The MBA Oath” Anderson and Escher offer four big reasons why they think the Oath would “make a palpable difference in the lives of the signers and in the culture of business more broadly.” Then they offer a chapter including “six more arguments for the MBA Oath.” This includes stuff like institutional accountability and how “character alone is not enough.” In the second half of the book they reflect upon the very purpose of a manager, explore “responsibility and transparency” and move beyond only “ethics and integrity” even inviting rumination on the meaning of the good life as it shapes ambition. Anyway, there’s tons of good stuff they’ve attempted to explicate. Maybe not enough; maybe your insights might have shaped them more (although I don’t think they’d disagree with your assessment of the history and culture of b-schools) but I still want to hold up their good efforts, and suggest their plans are much more than bunk.

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