As my classmates and I exited the building after a grueling two-week introductory residency, we were greeted by a small but determined protest. Their banner’s words were a direct attack against the opulence of the business school’s new building: “BERNIE MADOFF $CHOOL OF MONEY.” Reactions from the class were mixed – from incredulity to laughter to confusion. Most of us just wanted to say heartfelt goodbyes to new friends and make our way home for much needed rest. This was an unexpected beginning to my Yale MBA program.
To my knowledge, Bernie Madoff has no connection or affiliation with Yale, but the protest banner clearly associated his grievous crimes with anyone pursuing business education or anyone working in business. We exchanged simple pleasantries, and I then asked them to tell me about their protest.
One protester handed me a printout, testifying to the closing of a local shelter for women and children. She quipped that “…all the millions spent on this building, and they can’t even help to keep the shelter open.” The article shared how painful the shelter’s closing was for its leadership and also cited state budget difficulties. While other shelters and services would remain open, the article made clear that this was a real loss for the most vulnerable residents within the community.
Logic and pragmatism would tell you that the protesters and their banner were misplaced and incongruent with the business school – While tragic, the shelter’s closing had nothing to do with business education or the larger university for that matter, right? The reality is that sadly, prestigious universities have come to represent the growing inequality we face today. Business schools are seen as the cathedrals to inequality’s capitalist core.
It is no coincidence that the protesters chose the university’s business school over all of the other prestigious departments. They could have easily chosen the music school, where a 2005 endowment gift of $100 million enables all students to attend tuition free. Or they could have set up shop in front of the university commons, where a single alumnus recently donated $150 million to create a center devoted to cultural programming and student life.
The point is that the protesters did not see the business community as part of the solution to the very real business problem of the shelter closing. I doubt one would find talented faculty teaching strategic planning, firm restructuring, systemic risk, and entrepreneurship in the music school or classics department. Yet paradoxically, the business school’s glass and steel formed an emblematic tower to the shelter’s demise rather than a powerful resource for community organizations like the shelter.
As I stood between the building and the small protest, I was reminded of my fraught decision to attend graduate business school. I didn’t feel like “executive business material” while applying to the program, but I was resolute to garner the skills needed to become a better leader, a world-changer, even. Trusted friends told me that I would love the school and that I would be welcomed and supported. They were right; the two-week residency was a validation that I belonged. I loved the core curriculum and found immediate connections to my work. I was also heartened to know our class shared a common set of values – academic integrity, diversity of thought, respect for one another, and a broader sense of purpose beyond profits. Yet there I was, standing between my newfound academic home and the protest. The gulf between these worlds was palpable.
I know firsthand that many of my classmates chose the school precisely because its mission declared a larger role for its graduates – to educate leaders for business and society. It was clear that the protesters were implicitly asking, “What about my society?”
The question I continue to wrestle in my mind is how we, the business community at large, can recast our work as a force for good? From the fortune 50 executive all the way down to the millennial MBA candidate, business has picked up a bad reputation. The broader community has a glass half empty feeling about us, just waiting for some executive or firm to show the slightest hint of profiteering, greed, or corruption. We all need to own this point and really explore what this means. I am not giving up on graduate business training (quite the contrary), but I do find it absolutely preposterous that the very organizations and individuals who could benefit from the business school I attend garner no perceived benefit from its collective knowledge and are protesting at the school’s doors. I do not blame the protester, I blame us.
Before I slipped away from the protesters and their banner, one protester asked me if I was a student at the business school, and I sheepishly said yes. She then reached into her bag and with a wry smile handed me a wooden nickel with Madoff’s face on it, saying, “Here, you’ll need this.”
Back home, I researched the origin of wooden nickels and learned they were used as emergency currency during the Civil War and later handed out as souvenirs at various fairs. Despite the old adage, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” I took the nickel and will keep it as an anchor as I reshape the notion of business a force for societal good.