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New Harvard Dean is cause for applause

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The appointment of new Harvard dean Professor Nitin Nohria (left) with a background in leadership and ethics is a significant appointment, and one that follows a movement I noted in articles some years ago. For the grand old dame of business education to take such a visible move, notifying the world that is has taken on concerns about ethics,  shows a boldness that most people would not necessarily associate with the world’s most conservative school.  In light of recent criticism, such as the Phillip Delves Broughton book “What they teach you at Harvard Business School,” which was a fairly incisive criticism of the author’s perceived ethics of greed at HBS, to numerous articles blaming business schools like Harvard for the recession, HBS has had a harder than usual time at the hands of the public and media lately. Perhaps fairly.

There was ample opportunity for Harvard Business School to ignore the world’s – or at least the west’s – movement towards a more ethical way of teaching business education. There must have been numerous candidates and a sizeable shortlist for the position. Though I am not party to the discussions, I think we can assume the appointment would have caused major controversy within the corridors of Harvard itself with a lot of disgruntled opponents. But the school has stood its ground in light of the bare facts. The typical MBA student, as QS has noted in editorials going back some years, is far more interested in ethics and leadership and corporate social responsibility than ever before. The most recent QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey  and other research shows that candidates are making their business school choices and MBA graduates their career choices increasingly on perceived ethical standpoints. Harvard could have, but did not, choose to ignore this.

The dean-elect has not begun his work yet and it remains to be seen what changes he will instigate and and how quickly. One can only hope that criticism of his appointment, such as a recent letter in the FT, is based on genuine business fears from the hard-nosed business types who are just as entitled to their criticisms as I am to mine. To me the idea that “Asian business tigers” prowling the Pacific Rim are licking their lips at the utter demise of the American economy due to the appointment seems to me moderate hysteria. Let it remain to be seen whether Harvard turns out “touchy-feelies” from the school and then, even if this is the case, let’s see whether or not such acceptance of modern international and ethical values is such a bad thing after all.

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