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.” 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.
 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.