Open Letter to the Alumni and Students of the Harvard Business School

Editor’s Note: On March 15th, Michael Watkins, Associate Professor at HBS, sent an Open Letter to the Harvard Alumni Board and HBS Student Association and the editors of the Crimson and the Harbus, raising concerns about his perceived erosion of HBS’s autonomy and increasing influence of Harvard University President Larry Summers. According to Mr. Watkins, Mr. Summers’ has influenced an increase in University control of the School and has caused a shift in emphasis from practice-oriented research to discipline-based academics, and has modified the faculty recruitment and promotion processes at HBS to facilitate this. Mr. Watkins contention is that this has led to an increase in the number of library-researched case studies relative to the number of field-researched case studies and this ultimately strikes at the very roots of HBS. What follows are excerpts from his letter and postings from his weblog.

I am an associate professor at HBS. I am writing with regard to two recent articles published in the Harvard Crimson concerning issues I believe to be of critical importance to preservation of the HBS brand – the composition of faculty at the school, control over tenure process, and control over fundraising.

I believe that these issues, and the way that they are being dealt with by the administration, raise a fundamental question of governance for the school. To what extent should alumni and students be informed about, and participate in, decisions that have potentially significant consequences for the HBS brand and its equities?
Here are the events to date:

1. On February 27th, the Crimson published an article, “Junior Professor Criticizes HBS on Blog” In this posting I raised concerns about trends at the school that I believe are taking HBS away from its traditional focus on practice:

o Increasing hiring at junior and senior levels of discipline-oriented academics who are strongly incented to publish in academic journals and not to write for practitioners or develop course materials

o Changes in the HBS tenure process, including indications that President Summers was exerting more direct control, which were exacerbating this trend.

o A dramatic reduction in the percentage of field-based cases, as compared to “library” cases that do not require fieldwork

o A report by the Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education that indicated that the “quality” of participants in HBS’s open enrollment programs was declining.

2. My original posting received a great deal of attention (5000 reads at the time the first Crimson article was published, over 7,000 as of today.) In response, the Crimson published the article that revealed that President Summers had imposed a major change on HBS’s tenure process in 2002. While tenured faculty at HBS were of course aware of this, junior faculty, including those who have come up for promotion in the past two years, were not informed of the changes. Nor was there any communication that I am aware of with alumni on this significant change.

In the article, the HBS administration also claimed that I was incorrect in my analysis that there had been substantial reduction in the percentage of field cases, arguing that I had not had access to the full data. In response, I wrote a letter to the editors of the Crimson , in which I directly challenged these assertions, noting that, as an HBS faculty member, I had access to a full database that included cases that had not been released.

3. In a posting to my weblog on February 27th, I raised concerns that President Summers’ efforts to exert more control over the tenure process might be part of a broader process of centralization that could include fundraising and endowments.

4. On March 4th, the Harvard Crimson published an article on the major new fundraising campaign being launched by Harvard. This article also noted that consideration was being given to folding HBS’s current capital campaign into the larger University campaign.

On the basis of the revelations in these articles, I have challenged to the HBS administration to:

– Reveal the data that supports its assertion, as cited in the Harvard Crimson, that there has not been a change in the balance of field vs. library cases,

– Respond to my assertion that faculty involvement in case-writing is declining,

– Openly discuss the report that was given to the faculty about the declining quality of participants in HBS open enrollment programs, and what is being done about it,

– Be more open about President Summers’ moves to centralize control of the tenure process and potentially the fund-raising process and their implications

– Involve the alumni in making these critical decisions about the composition of the faculty and the focus of the school.

Finally, some may question why I am doing this. Given that I was not promoted to tenured professor this fall, this is an important question. The answer is (1) because I care about the institution and its traditional values and don’t want to see HBS become “just another business school;!
pursuing the traditional HBS educational model has been the focus of my life for nearly 20 years, and (2) because I can raise these issues with relative safety, and so speak for those who have similar concerns, but too much to lose to be open about it. As someone who currently has a best-selling business book (The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels) and a thriving consulting practice, I am not dependent on the good offices of the current HBS administration for my livelihood.

Excerpts from postings to my weblog
Relevance vs. Respectability

In the six years that I have been at HBS, I have observed a battle going on between believers in the importance of managerial relevance and upholders of academic respectability. The former is losing. The right balance is hard to strike in professional schools, especially those situated in leading research universities. Go too far in the direction of practice, and you become a consulting/training company. Go too far in the direction of academic respectability, and you become irrelevant. The latter has been the fate of many of the business schools at leading universities – they rarely produce cutting-edge thinking that impacts business practice (take a look at the top 250 books on management at and note how few are written by business school academics.) Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, for example, was apparently not renewed in his position by Stanford.

For a long time, the main exception to this has been HBS, which was defined at its founding as a “delicate experiment” in bridging theory and practice. Since its founding, HBS has been a source of innovative business thinking. But my sense is that the pipeline for ideas that impact business is going dry at the school. Also the school is confronting troubling trends – in terms of increasing “capture” of the school by discipline-oriented academics, reductions in the quality of executive program participants, and declining involvement of faculty in developing cases studies – the school’s bread and butter – that I believe point to deeper problems.

Capture by the Disciplines
The move to more “systematic” management education began in the late 1950’s with reports commissioned by the Ford and Carnegie foundations that criticized the vocational focus of business schools. Among the key recommendations was a move to embrace applied mathematics, economics, and behavioral science as the foundations of a management education. This approach, which reduced the tension between more academic arts and sciences faculties and their counterparts in professional schools, took hold and reshaped business education.

HBS embraced much of what was good about this reform effort, while retaining its distinctive identify and approach. From its founding until the late 1970’s, HBS operated according to its own idiosyncratic knowledge creation
model. It focused on the case method and strongly valued teaching and connection with practice. Critically, it encouraged interdisciplinary research and trained many of its own faculty (including people with a lot of business experience) in the HBS Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) program to conduct such research, but the practice of training your own faculty is anathema at most academic institutions.

Instead, the academy is organized into “disciplines” (economics, psychology). Most academics have primary allegiance to their disciplines and associated reference communities, and not the particular institutions in which they reside. They seek to publish in their discipline’s leading referred journals; attend its conferences, etc. One important way you gain status in the academic disciplines is by having your PhD graduates “seeded” into other institutions.

But this means that discipline-oriented academics have little incentive to make investments in “institution-specific capital” like teaching, developing courses, and writing case studies.

Beginning in the early 1980’s HBS’s traditional model came under increasing attack. As I understand it, soon after John McArthur was appointed Dean (he was Dean from 1980 to 1995), then Harvard President Derek Bok began pushing very hard to increase the academic respectability of HBS, using the club of the President’s control of the tenure process. Unlike the Graduate School of Arts and Science at Harvard, HBS had not been subject to Harvard’s “ad hoc” process – in which the President appoints an independent committee to review all tenure appointments and to treat each tenure decision as an open search for the best candidate in the world for that position.

The result of the ad hoc process has been very few internal promotions within Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS) The standing joke is that young faculty in the GSAS are treated by their senior colleagues as if they were victims of a fatal childhood disease – kindly, but with the expectation that they will not be around for very long). This promotion system works reasonably well in the humanities and sciences, but is devastating in professional schools because it doesn’t reward contributions to practice.

The result of President Bok’s pressure was that HBS began to hire more “outsiders,” respected business scholars from leading research institutions. This set in motion a process of increasing “capture” of HBS by discipline-oriented academics and strengthened the forces taking the school in the direction of academic respectability. This process of capture has continued through the administration of the current Dean, Kim Clark (himself an economist). It has accelerated recently because the school has reached a “tipping point” in terms of the declining influence of the old guard and the rise of the young academics.

Declining Quality of Executive Program Participants
The increasing influence of the “young academics” is just one of several influences that I believe are taking HBS away from a sufficiently close connection to the practice of management. There also are issues concerning who comes to HBS’s executive programs. In an HBS faculty meeting a year or so ago, the then Senior Associate Dean in charge of Executive Programs, gave a sobering presentation on the state of HBS’s open enrollment executive program offerings. The core message of the presentation was that HBS was attracting fewer and fewer managers from leading US companies in growth industries and more from (1) non-leading companies in stagnant industries, and (2) international participants who continued to see the HBS brand as very attractive.

To me, this was a clear warning sign of creeping erosion of the HBS brand. I also think it has potentially dire consequences for innovation and knowledge creation at the school – if professors don’t connect with the best practitioners, it becomes hard for them to learn, develop and test new ideas that influence practice.

Declining Faculty Involvement in Development of Case Studies
The other primary way that HBS has kept its faculty abreast of real-world practice is through the writing of case studies on companies. Here too I believe there are major problems. Many of the discipline-oriented tenure-track faculty don’t appear to want to invest much time in writing cases. Why? Because it’s an institution-specific investment (and a very time consuming one) that takes them away from their research and ability to publish in leading journals. Journal publishing is what they rightly care about, because it will get them promoted within their disciplines and gives them options should things not work out at HBS. When they do write cases, they prefer to do “library cases” (based on secondary sources), rather than field cases (based on direct contact with companies and managers).

The result is, I believe, a vicious cycle of increasing isolation of the school from practice. HBS has compensated, to some degree, by hiring professional case writers, allowing tenure track faculty to increasingly delegate the field research to them and to research assistants. But this simply enables the isolation of faculty from practice to continue and grow.

Centralization of Control at Harvard: What about endowments and fundraising?

If the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers are, under President Summers’ impetus, moving to centralize control over the tenure process it raises an interesting question. Is this part of a larger process of centralization that the President is pushing? What about endowments and fundraising? Is that going to become more centralized too? After all, the alumni of HBS are a rich prize indeed. They are presently the subject of a $500 million capital campaign.