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.



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

  1. 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.

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