Tenure & Parasitism at Harvard Business School

Well, another business academic has joined the “something’s funky about business schools” club. This time it is Michael Watkins, a Harvard Business School professor who was recently denied tenure and is now musing about how HBS is failing its students and its mission.

I can see Watkins’ point. If you scan his CV, it is suitably ample and right in line with the sort of thing that has gotten people tenure at Harvard in the not-too-distant past. (I don’t mean to suggest anything untoward about Harvard; it’s just that historically Harvard Business School has been more tolerant of academics who published in less typically academic outlets.) This is a borderline case, at worst, and certainly not an outright rejection.

Nevertheless, here, in his words, is Watkins’ epiphany:

I think my case raises some issues about the future of HBS and of business schools in general. In particular, I have been wondering for some time:

  • To what extent are business schools producing insights of use to practicing managers?

  • Is the investment that they are making in research justified in terms of results?
  • Is the HBS brand at risk?

I believe that the answers to these questions are, respectively, little, no, and very much so. I further believe that this is the result of the “capture” of business schools (including unfortunately and increasingly HBS) by discipline-oriented academics who consume more value from their institutions than they create for them.

He calls the latter group parasites, and I don’t disagree with Watkins’ characterization. More broadly, however, it is interesting how many business academics have been slow to realize what is happening inside their own institutions: economics-envy has taken hold. Business schools have, of course, been heading down the self-refuting path of rigor over relevance since at least the Ford Foundation’s “new look” report of the 1950s. Sadly, Watkin’s tale shows that things are demonstrably getting sillier, not more sane.

There is, of course, a bright side. The market works, even for storied business schools. Annoy enough customers by having mufti economists teach too much sterile twaddle at $33,650 per year and you too can mess up a wildly profitable business.


  1. Michael Watkins says:

    While it is true that the process I described has been going on at most business schools for a long time (I think I basically say that), HBS has been the shining exception. The process got started there later and has only recently reached a critical point.
    I’ve been working hard on the inside to preserve traditional HBS values, fighting the good fight, trying to personally to develop relevant, impactful courses (hence my Corporate Diplomacy course, which is a very well received and relevant advanced negotiation course.
    So it is unfair to characterize me as slow on the uptake on this.

  2. Hi Michael —
    Fair comment. Apologies if I sounded like I was picking on you in particular, as your comments on Harvard and on biz schools in general were savvy and nuanced.
    It’s just interesting that so many of my business school colleagues are thoroughly disillusioned, having thought that they would be rewarded for publishing interesting & relevant work in outlets that management sorts actually read. Harvard was one of the last relevance holdouts, and it too is apparently now falling under the spell of economics-envy.
    You can trace the evolution of what you call “parasitism” back to the Ford Foundation’s “New Look” report in the 1950s. The result: However “right” it would be for said schools to actually talk to management, as opposed to through and around them, it just doesn’t happen. And, as you point out, it is only getting worse.

  3. Michael Watkins says:

    Thanks Paul. I’m with you 100% on the nature of the problem and its importance.

  4. Anyone who uses buzzwords like “impactful” should be denied tenure and set free to pursue other mission-critical initiatives.