While reading the latest MBA Jungle, I found a very interesting article. The author, Peter Navarro, professor at the University of California, tries to make a case for a B-School Bar, a competency exam to be taken at the end of the MBA. His article is well written and his arguments are attractive. I’m just wondering if he knows what he is talking about.
Navarro’s argument is simple. According to him, there is a natural conflict between pushing students to perform and receiving good evaluations as a professor. The result? “Many professors wind up kissing students’ rear ends when they should be kicking them,” and MBA students “cruise for two years.” In the end, “far too many MBA grads don’t have the skills,” he argues. He is therefore advocating a final competency exam that would all of a sudden solve all those problems and make his teaching life easier.
Like using a hammer to crush a fly, a B-School bar looks like a good idea at first, but it does not stand a closer examination.
First, it appeals to the old myth that a general competency exam could establish Business as a profession as honorable as Law or Medicine. Sorry folks, this will never happen. Like Engineering, Business is too broad a field, and entire careers can be built on radically different bases. Entire worlds lie between a CFO and a Marketing expert, between a venture capitalist and a non-profit CEO. An exam likely to address their common skills as well as their specifics would be, to use Einstein’s own words, simple and false or complex and useless.
Second, it may be true that B-School professors feel pressured to seduce students, but I’m not sure that the only way out is “kissing [their] rear ends”. Of course, everyone is welcome to try his or her own approach, but if this were the only option, why would the most demanding EC courses be the most over-subscribed? Spreading the HBS approach (selecting high-achievers and using a forced curve grading system) can ensure that professors and students’ objectives are aligned and that everyone’s energy is focused on learning.
Third, an MBA is not that much about acquiring technical knowledge as it is about shaping a personal experience. Why would performing NPV analysis be favored over contributing to a non-profit board, writing a business plan, or participating on a research paper? An excessive focus on arbitrary topics may prevent students to take responsibility and use the MBA resources to develop their own career paths. And I’m not sure that assessing the variety of the student’s experiences through a standard test would do justice to the incredible richness of an MBA.
Prof. Navarro’s article is pretty interesting, and even if I disagree with his recommendation, I understand his concerns. If I may recommend a course of action, he would be better off using his witty prose to convince his B-School administration to adopt an HBS-like forced curve grading system. This would be a more effective way to solve his grading problems than arguing for a B-School bar that will never be implemented. Regarding the short-term, he may also want to spend more time with his own students. In addition to raising his evaluations, this may help him understand what an MBA is really about.