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2008 – Retrospectives – The Centennial Year

HBS celebrates its Centennial while simultaneously refining the concept of an “MBA”

This year, HBS celebrated its 100th anniversary The festivities officially started on April 8th, 2008, 100 years to the day the Harvard Corporation voted to establish a business school on the patch of swampy land across the Charles River from Harvard University.ÿ

Today, the concept of a “business school” may not seem radical at all, but in 1908, the creation of a school dedicated to the practice of management was a controversial pursuit – controversial enough to earn the label “delicate experiment” by some.ÿ

In order to legitimize the founding of the school and place management as a profession alongside others such as law or medicine, the original founders sold management education to the Harvard Corporation as a means to improve society.

In his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession, for instance, Professor Rakesh Khurana argues that the founders of HBS and other top business schools originally viewed management education as a means to advance the needs of society, not narrow self interest.

With the idea of establishing management as a profession akin to medicine or law and the Panic of 1907 hot on its heels, Harvard Business School welcomed its first class of 59 male students in 1908.ÿ

Throughout its first 100 years, HBS has remained devoted to the case study method, although the concept of management education has evolved dramatically over time to include periods dedicated to imparting specific business knowledge, creating shareholder value, conducting quantitative analysis and most recently, exercising leadership.

With this historical baggage in tow, HBS kicked off a robust and ambitious lineup of Centennial activities this past year, starting with a school-wide celebration on April 8th, 2008.ÿ True to HBS fashion, students were asked to read and discuss a case on the 100th anniversary of HBS with Dean Jay Light as the case protagonist.

In addition to April 8th, a multitude of activities throughout 2008 marked HBS’s Centennial, including a series of faculty-led colloquia on various management topics, global outreach activities to HBS alumni throughout the world, a Business Summit held on campus in mid-October, a Centennial website, etc.

HBS celebrated its Centennial in grandiose fashion, but where does all of this leave us?ÿ

The MBA degree is still at a critical junction, challenged by many critics who no longer see the degree as relevant in the 21st century.ÿ These critics claim the MBA has ineffectively dealt with a global world and that MBA students are more immersed in theory than in practice.ÿ

Moreover, companies have established “corporate universities” and other in-house training programs to advance their highest-performing employees.ÿ And despite a recent shift towards leadership, a common critique of recent MBA hires is that they cannot effectively work with others around them.ÿ In fact, some recruiters avoid hiring at HBS for precisely this reason.ÿ

After a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the MBA, its history, and its shortcomings, the MBA profession remains in turmoil.ÿ

The financial crisis of 2008, for example, placed HBS alums at the forefront of the problem as well as the solution.ÿ Whilst HBS graduates such as Henry Paulson (US Treasury Secretary) and Jamie Dimon (CEO of Citigroup) were front and center attempting to rectify the financial crisis, others such as George W. Bush were largely blamed for mishandling the financial system.ÿ

While blaming President Bush for our financial woes is probably unfair, it is certainly appropriate to point the blame toward scores of HBS alums working in financial engineering concocting obscure mortgage and financial instruments that eventually brought the financial system to its knees.

As the year closes and HBS wraps up its Centennial activities, HBS will continue to refine the concept of management education to determine what should and should not comprise the management profession.ÿ Shaping management education for the next 100 years poses a robust challenge, but also a unique opportunity.

It is appropriate that HBS should take the lead role in refining the MBA degree for the next century.ÿ HBS did, after all, create the MBA in the first place.

December 8, 2008
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