Business schools must step up and engage in intellectual activism – here’s how

By Alessia Contu.

A professor of politics in an elite US liberal art college recently remarked to me:  “I must confess my stereotype of someone working in a business school is of one who serves the one per cent.”

Noting our shared political and intellectual persuasions, she questioned: “how can you work in a business school?”

My colleague is right, of course.  Business schools are not perceived as intellectual ‘hotbeds’, and even less crucibles of critical and progressive thinking.

Business schools are often portrayed as universities’ ‘cash cows’, something former minister of universities and science David Willetts acknowledged in 2013.  A Chartered Association of Business Schools Report in March confirmed that business schools are big business worth more than £2.4 billion annually.

As my colleague hinted at, business schools also play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, sole focus on shareholder maximization, and economic short-termism.

Already in 2005, management guru Sumantra Ghoshal denounced business schools for perpetuating “the worst excesses” of management practices. Eleven years later Mie Augier and James March criticised North American business schools for forwarding “personal income, corporate profit or shareholder value as the highest social virtue for management”. Business schools were portrayed as “academies of the apocalypse” for their role in the 2008 financial crisis.

As societies become ever more unequal (see OECD) our business schools continue to ignore concrete socio-economic analysis and perpetuate and even glorify the immoral and risky behaviors and values that help generate such inequality.

The fact that a business man, armed with “post-truth” reasoning and mired by shady business practices, has become president-elect of the United States shows how dominant and legitimized such behaviors and values have become.

In academic journals, a debate on the “business of business schools” continues to rage. But that’s it. Little of substance has changed.

There has been a positive development in management education – more business ethics teaching.

But, as Judith Samuelson of the Aspen Institute explains, they are too often standalone modules with minimal influence on curricula let alone to the broader business community and its practices. They are like using a Doc McStuffins plaster on an ulcerating tumor. Pretty but not very useful.

Because of this inertia in the business schools it’s now imperative to embrace intellectual activism to deliver substantial change in business schools so they produce (and engage with) knowledge and practices that serve the public interest.

Let’s remember that, notwithstanding their traditional elitism and sexism, the social significance of business was high on the agenda of early business school leaders such as Wallace Donham – second dean of Harvard Business School.

Intellectual activism, as theorised by Professor Patricia Hills Collins, describes the ways “power of ideas” work for social justice and – I would add – economic and epistemic justice. How is it done?

In teaching we can diversify the management curriculum by introducing historical, comparative and political outlooks. Unless our students are taught history and grasp how specific social institutions and rules have developed and for the benefit of whom then they will not have the instruments to unpack the claims of any snake oil salesman. Our students, for example, must learn that current American corporate capitalism with its powerful lobbies shaping public opinion is not the only “game in town” and that diverse institutional arrangements and choices are possible and they have different outcomes.

We can hybridize our teaching menu. Rather than focusing solely on the corporation we can teach how value is produced in multiple organizational forms, e.g. small and medium family enterprises, co-operatives and social enterprises..

We can subvert the “one size fits all” often-prescribed knowledge by including a close attention to differences of class, gender and race, for example by discussing how colour blindness impacts managing people, an issue that even in highly-diverse business schools is still unusual.

In research and scholarship we can shake the tunnel vision we have for too long suffered from concentrating on economic objectives at the expense of social ones.

We must take responsibility for the theories we develop and the practices we sanction.

It is also important that, as academic managers, we reflect on our own working practices.

For example, how do we counter race and gender biases that research shows is pervasive in teaching evaluations when we assess colleagues for promotion?

How do we maintain a collegial environment in the face of the individualizing “publish or perish” ethos prevalent in business school culture?

Do we facilitate open debate and collective deliberation or are we content with being what, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer call, “stupid leaders”?

Sure, intellectual activism is not easy. And a further challenge we face is that it will need to be done within such a “post-truth” era when critical thinking will be yet more important and concerns for progressive values of freedom, equality and solidarity in our societies even more urgent.

But such activism it is already manifest in some business schools all over the world.

In my own workplace, it’s in the work our research group is doing with Executive Director Bob Massie in building the Sustainable Solution Lab to “develop, test, and implement interdisciplinary solutions that are environmentally sound, economically sustainable, and socially just”.

Or the Emerging Leader Program that develops Boston leaders “who reflect the changing demography of our region and who embrace a collaborative leadership model”.

Or my colleague Professor Özkazanç-Pan’s research on the barriers affecting women and minority entrepreneurs.

No doubt – and perhaps justifiably – the stereotype of business schools academics held by the likes of my politics colleague will remain for a while yet.

But, innovative change that unites the intellectual and pragmatic quest for efficiency and value creation with that of social and environmental justice is underway.

I, for one, am happy to be part of ‘that’ business school.


* Alessia Contu, Chair of the Management Department, College of Management, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA, and co-founder of VIDA, an international network of business school women scholars ; Email:

A version of this article appeared on Jan 17, 2017 in the Guardian – find it here.


6 thoughts on “Business schools must step up and engage in intellectual activism – here’s how

  1. It’s a great article and very interesting to read. There are some good points in it but however I think that working in a Business School is really great. Nowadays most people enter in the business field, not because it’s easy but in themselves they know they can become a leader and be successful. To be in this kind of environment it really help you to be a leader, gives you some good knowledge and practices that could help the interest of the public.

  2. “As my colleague hinted at, business schools also play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, sole focus on shareholder maximization, and economic short-termism.”
    Being a Management student at Umass Boston the skills and mindset my professors has been about looking at oppurtunity as a mode of change for the better not only in the short-term but also in the long-term. Through several lectures my professors have explained that maximizing on business oppurtunities is only worth it when it has a positive effect on stakeholders and we shouldn’t always worry about keeping shareholders happy. The corporate structure of America is changing and it is becoming more involved with its affect on stakeholders rather than pleasing shareholders. This change of corporate structure wouldn’t have occured if business schools were only pushing skills, values and mindset of greed rather than social change.

  3. I agree with this article to an extent. I do believe that business schools have essentially become a money making machine yet there needs to be more teachings of life skills in general and peer to peer engagement. Intellectual activism would be a perfect addition to an individual with a business background. Business ethics should be expanded more, not limited to just one class and there should be more teacher to student involvement in order to give a more quality education and to help students way beyond their years in a university. Some skills go beyond the classroom and intellectual activism is one of them.

  4. Sigh. Why does everybody have to agree on all of your opinions? I was educated at UMASS Boston school of management and they didn’t impose their opinions on us. Let students make up their own minds instead of brainwashing. Not everyone will agree with every liberal philosophy and you should respect that.

    • I agree with the article to some extent because some of the reasons stated in the article are very true. People often mistake Business schools as an area of profitability because they are worth more than 2.4 billion annually. This is a lot of money, and it shows that these institutions are more for business purposes than for intellectual means. It portrays signs of greed, opportunism and focus on shareholder maximization. This debate continues to go on. I see that there is not only negative aspect to it but there are positive aspects too. Business Schools are not always influenced by money; some actually care about educational purposes of it as well. For example, UMASS Boston has a business school as well and I feel that it has been a great learning place, the staff and the dean seem to care about students. It has different purposes as well but it also aligns with profitability for them. I don’t see that if they earn profit from it then it’s wrong, if it fulfills it’s purpose as well to make student life better and learnable then it should not be a problem.

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