Don’t shut down the business school: Re-locate it

abstract

Critical Management Studies, and the business school within which it has flourished, is in crisis. Again. Instead of shutting down the business school, as Martin Parker has proposed, this paper argues for re-locating the business school, meaning that location (as in jurisdiction) should be central to the school’s identity, mission and understanding of the world. The paper describes how business schools, as promoters of globalization and internationalization, have worked to stigmatize the local in teaching and inquiry. Two case studies on the Celtic Tiger and corporate manslaughter illustrate the argument. If business schools and universities are to celebrate the local, then they should actively de-internationalize, unwinding some of the embedded practices of internationalization. Business schools should also work to re-integrate themselves back into the university, forging stronger links with disciplines that have traditionally eschewed the pursuit of generalized theory, such as history, law, classical studies and engineering. This also means abandoning the ABS Guide as a way of assessing research output and instead investing time in designing and installing a local, university-wide research assessment scheme. Finally, re-locating the business school means re-imagining the school’s curriculum, approach to research, understanding of critique, and how it imagines and engages with its own polis.

Introduction

This Special Issue’s call for papers reprises critical management studies’ (CMS) ongoing concern about its perceived inability to change the status quo or to improve the world in any meaningful way. That concern is manifest elsewhere, such as in Parker’s (2018a, 2018b) radical suggestion that the business school (b-school) should be shut down and bulldozed[1]. Parker is sincere and I, for one, would not be disappointed if his wish was fulfilled, but he is probably well aware that this is unlikely to occur and smacks of ‘biting the hand that feeds’ as one of my colleagues opined upon reading his Guardian article. The b-school is an institution, and, by definition, institutions do not come and go by the week. Indeed, if the b-school is to be shut down, it is probably more likely to occur as part of a collapse and reconfiguration of higher education, rather than because of any internal criticisms. COVID-19 may be much more potent than CMS in inspiring a re-imagining of the university and its constituent entities.

Parker’s discontent speaks to the frustration of many critical scholars. What should the ‘critters’ – a term suggestive of an unpleasant but harmless animal – do? Piss inside the tent, piss outside the tent, or just take the piss?

Instead of advocating that b-schools be shut down, a more pragmatic view is that they should be re-located, by which I mean they need to be re-positioned so that location is central to their identity, mission and understanding of the world. Tellingly, Parker begins his book with a two-page description of an imaginary b-school, one that we instantly recognise because most of us work in a simulacrum of his depiction. In my own school, part of our mission is that we should ‘look and feel’ like a top-50 b-school[2], while when I was employed in another Irish university, the criticism, inside and outside the university, was that the ‘commerce faculty’ did not look like a b-school. This scuppered its chances of getting accreditation, with the consequence of not being able to attract top quality staff and, more importantly, overseas students willing to pay high tuition fees. The b-school has become a place with no sense of local place, a generic, aspatial entity, much like Starbucks is the same, whether it is in Singapore, San Francisco or Sligo: ‘It could be the office for any knowledge company on any office park near any somewhere’ (Parker, 2018a: 1). The strategic imperative for the b-school is that it not be local, because, quite simply, the local is bad.

In the next section, I discuss the concept of the local, how universities have traditionally identified with a local context, how the local has come to be stigmatized within the discourse of higher education and the b-school’s role in that process. Two short cases then illustrate the issue. The first shows how the local was ignored by Irish management academics who rarely, if ever, analysed the Celtic Tiger, the financial crash of 2008, or its aftermath, even though Ireland was a unique laboratory for social and economic experiments.  The second case documents the absence of management academics from the conversation around corporate manslaughter, which I attribute to the demands that they construct general theory rather than intervene in local jurisdictions. I then outline what needs to be done to address and reverse this stigmatization of the local and the consequences for the b-school and its academics.

Stigmatizing the local

The local (or the proximate) is a relative term that might refer to a part of a body, a village community, a city-state, a nation or indeed any social space. Understandings of what is and is not local are invariably ambiguous, elastic, fluid and contested, as are the meaning of related terms such as locale, location, hinterland, area, near, far, proximate, distal, catchment, etc., each of which takes on a particular meaning depending on context. That context is concretized once ‘local’ is used as an adjective, as in a ‘local university’, which is our concern in this paper. Most importantly, the ‘local’ emphasizes a university’s physical location in a particular jurisdiction, which accords with the long tradition of identifying universities with a place and also with the reality that each university operates in a geographic territory governed by a legal authority.

The local is a socially produced phenomenon and is therefore normatively employed in thinking, action and structures of power (Soja, 1989; Lefebvre, 1991; Harvey, 2006, 2009; Beyes and Steyaert, 2011). Thus, the local might be variously seen as something to be celebrated, denigrated, ignored or re-defined. In recent decades, the local has tended to be depicted negatively in a range of discourses that have impacted universities and b-schools in particular. The discourses interweave, but the local tends to be denigrated in internationalization, globalization, Americanization, Englishization, virtualization, and universalism.

Universities have always identified with a particular location and, since the eighteenth century, with a particular nation-state. However, in recent decades they have increasingly sought to re-define themselves as international in character and purpose, partly as a consequence of the wider economic, political and social forces of globalization and neoliberalism (Altbach and Knight, 2007; de Wit, 2020). The expansion of capitalism, the liberalization of markets, the removal of cross-border trade barriers, the growth of multi-national corporations, and the development of new technologies of transport and communication have all radically changed universities and the global academic market. Universities have responded to reductions in state funding through a suite of activities, including branch campuses, cross-border collaborative arrangements, courses for international students, new English-medium programmes, as well as targeting students from distant places who typically pay higher fees than local students. Becoming more international is now a ubiquitous feature in almost every university’s strategic plan. For instance, the words ‘global’ and ‘world’ appear 6 and 5 times respectively in my university’s vision statement of just 252 words (University College Dublin, 2015). Of course, internationalizing higher education has many appealing aspects: It enables students to see the world from new vantage points, to think differently about their own traditions and prejudices, to see themselves and their cultures in new ways, and to prepare for a global labour market. The danger is, when the difference that defines the very notion of culture is subordinated to the desire to create a standardized, one-size-fits-all culture. The concept of one’s own culture and the consequent idea of multiculturalism requires distinctive cultures typically centred on geographic locations and nation states. Internationalization goes too far when any sense of the local is disparaged and when the desire to attract overseas students drives indigenous people out of the classroom. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many programmes in leading b-schools have very few domestic students.

B-schools have played a particular and not insignificant role in this project of internationalization. Partly, this is due to scale, as, globally, at least 13,000 institutions now offer business degrees (Peters et al., 2018b). Partly, it is because b-schools have centred their research on private firms, which slowly became the dominant organizing template and model for universities (Rhodes, 2017). If private firms were able to expand operations outside of their original location, why could universities, which for centuries had been strictly associated with a particular place, not do the same? Moreover, management academics, teaching globalization and international business, provided a ready supply of cases, constructs and frames to help internationalize the university (Ahmed and Rao, 2011).

B-schools have also spearheaded the belittling of the local by modelling themselves on an idealized image of US business schools (Jamil, 2015). To that end, b-schools typically present themselves as international in outlook and constitution and see themselves as competing in an international market. In that framing, the local is not only of limited value but is a drag on the overall strategy. This is reinforced by accreditation bodies that require an international dimension in the b-school’s governance, culture and strategy (see for example EFMD, 2020) and by metrics that rate, for instance, the percentage of international faculty in the school.

One important feature of internationalization is the adoption of English as the normal language of communication (Altbach, 2007; Piller and Cho, 2013; Boussebaa and Brown, 2016; Frath, 2017). Again, b-schools have played a significant role in this phenomenon. For instance, the highest number of Master’s programmes with English as the medium of instruction, in non-English speaking countries, is in business and economics subjects (28%) (Hultgren et al., 2015: 3). In addition, the various ranking lists used in b-schools, are dominated by US-based journals and almost all are published only in English. Surprisingly, little has been written about this phenomenon in English, even by critical management scholars (Boussebaa et al., 2014; Boussebaa and Tienari, 2021), though it has been addressed in other languages (Barbier, 2016; Frath, 2017).

Seeing the global as good and the local as bad (or at least not as good) is exemplified in the way b-schools place particular value on multi-national corporations (MNCs), rather than local indigenous businesses. For instance, my own school’s strategy, in 2015, included these targets:

  • Be the largest recruitment base for the top 10 ICT companies, top 10 financial institutions, the big 4 accounting firms
  • Double the number of graduates working with EuroStoxx 50 companies
  • Double the number of graduates working with the top 10 London investment banks
  • 90% of faculty are international or internationally-trained

More broadly, many multinational companies pay relatively small amounts of taxes compared to local businesses and local labour, fuelling the notion that tax is for the ‘little people’. Unlike local companies, MNCs can avoid paying taxes because they are domiciled nowhere, or ‘any somewhere’, as Parker might put it. The label ‘multinational corporations’ (MNC) does not properly describe these entities; rather, they are ‘no fixed abode corporations’ (NFACs). NFACs are hard if not impossible to tax because they are unlocatable, which is incompatible with tax systems based on taxable entities being domiciled in a particular, identifiable location.

As well as these macro-level drivers, b-schools have embraced a particular location-less epistemology and paradigm of inquiry. That paradigm is commonly called positivism, which is an umbrella term encompassing mathematical modelling, functionalism, as well as quantitative and hypothetico-deductive approaches to inquiry. Since the late 1950s, b-schools have adopted this positivist paradigm with enthusiasm. The problems with the paradigm are well-known, but what I wish to emphasize is how location is eviscerated in this epistemology that privileges making mathematical models of the world. Of course, location can be included in a mathematical model – such as in an engineering model of a particular river system – but the type of models that have dominated management studies since the early 1960s are usually location-less, in that they either exclude location from the model’s dataset and/or use the model to justify and promote a general theory that is devoid of location specifics or limits.

Not everyone bought into the shift to positivism that began in US b-schools during the 1950s and 1960s, and it is no surprise that an alternative paradigm of inquiry also emerged around that time. Sometimes labelled as interpretivist, qualitative, or phenomenological, it is invariably defined by its opposition to positivism. There are major differences between interpretivism and positivism, but the former, in its particular manifestation in b-schools, has also worked to eviscerate location. Interpretivism harbours many variants, but in b-schools it typically involves detailed study of a particular manifestation of a phenomenon, and then, through induction, it seeks to identify and name general theoretical constructs and propositions. The approach is certainly different – mathematical models are conspicuously absent – but the search for and belief in general (i.e., location-less) theory still animates most interpretivist research in b-schools. The pity is that interpretivism has been ingested into b-schools mainly as a methodology without much upset to the dominant epistemology. In contrast, other disciplines like history and anthropology, and professional fields like law and engineering, do not exhibit the same fetish for location-less theory.

Critical management studies has, from the get-go, been hostile to the b-school’s commitment to managerialism, and has highlighted the political and ethical dimensions of management techniques, theories and pedagogy. It shares many of the same intellectual roots as interpretivism, though it focuses on power and inequalities rather than interpretivism’s primary concern with meaning. Notwithstanding this change in focus, location still does not figure centrally, as the talk is about management, generally, and workers, generally, and systems of regulation, generally. Thus, Parker, an inspirational figure in the CMS community, speaks of shutting down the business school, generally, rather than, say, Warwick Business School[3]. Even in the CMS manifestation, the drive to theorize, to develop general, location-less (or alocal) theory is evident.

Evident, but not hegemonic. ephemera, in particular, has given space to location, with two special issues on Latin America (issue 3 in 2006 and issue 1 in 2020) that seek to counter organization studies’ obvious Eurocentrism. But that Eurocentrism is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the ten articles in the 2006 special issue received a total of only 43 citations, none of which was in an ABS-ranked journal[4]. Another CMS journal, Organization, also had a special issue on Latin America in 2006 (Volume 13, issue 4) and the six articles in that issue have a much higher citation rate (a total of 741 citations) with many citations in ABS-ranked journals. However, focusing on citation rates is perhaps part of the problem, as it at once hides and facilitates the construction, operation and maintenance of echo chambers, both small and large. A group of fifty academics citing one another a lot – a collective version of self-citation, perhaps – might advance egos and careers, but might make little difference otherwise. Moreover, most of the articles in the three special issues still engage with location at a highly aggregated level that glosses over major differences between jurisdictions. For instance, ‘Latin America’ refers to a group of 20 countries, 14 dependent territories and 640 million people. Similarly, the special issue in Organization emerged out of discussions within APROS – Asia-Pacific Researchers in Organization Studies – where the ‘A’ in APROS refers to Australia (25 million people), Asia (4.6 billion people in 55 countries) and the Americas (1 billion people in 35 countries). This is not to dismiss such high-level, geo-political analysis , and some of the ideas will surely percolate into what management academics teach, but it is still difficult to see how writing ‘critical’ articles in management journals will make a ‘practical difference’, as this call for papers puts it.

Two illustrative cases

This section presents two cases that illustrate what happens when we fetishize the creation of location-less, general theory.

The invisible Celtic Tiger

The Irish economy grew at a rapid and unprecedented rate between the mid-1990s and 2008, with much international attention and commentary on what was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. That growth was halted abruptly in 2008, when the property bubble burst, leading to a financial collapse, bank bailouts and years of austerity. Ireland, during the Celtic Tiger and post-Tiger periods, presented a unique setting to inquire into management and organizational practices in a society and economy that was moving from pre-modernism to post-modernism, experimenting with de-regulated financial services, working through new forms of social partnership, and subsequently becoming a social and economic laboratory for austerity. What, one wonders, had Irish management academics to say about these unprecedented phenomena?

To answer this question, I reviewed all of the papers presented at Irish Academy of Management conferences between 2004 and 2012, an interval spanning the Celtic Tiger and post-crash periods. A total of 1405 papers were presented in the nine conferences, with most papers being presented by Irish management academics. Full papers were located from the conference organizers for all years, except 2007 and 2010 when only the titles were available. My analysis focused on identifying those papers that were primarily concerned with issues clearly associated with the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath. Full details on the study are available elsewhere (Kavanagh, 2013) but, in summary, virtually none of the papers presented research into either phenomena. The overwhelming sense from the analysis is that Irish management academics, including myself, were indifferent to the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath, at least in their research.

One could come up with different explanations for this. For instance, perhaps the management academics saw the Celtic Tiger as properly the domain of the economists and felt they lacked the necessary analytical techniques. Perhaps, but I feel it was more to do with the difficulty in producing context-less theory – a primary requirement of management scholarship – through studying the Celtic Tiger. Even if few Irish management academics might see themselves as positivists, the values of the academic habitus are the values of positivism. History does not matter very much, nor does geography, nor national culture, nor particular legal jurisdictions (Clark and Rowlinson, 2004). For most management academics, local situated studies have low value, other than as case studies of some more general phenomenon. Treating the local as sui generis means accepting that the narrative and analysis have narrow spatial and temporal boundaries – an explanation of the Irish economy in 2007 is unlikely to explain the French economy in 2010 – and such local studies are not valued by most management scholars. Moreover, the timeline between doing management research and getting it published – usually at least a number of years – means that academics will not risk undertaking research, where the analysis is unlikely to endure over space or time. Academics learn this as part of their research training: A PhD typically takes at least four years to complete and so PhD students are attracted to research topics where the contribution will be fresh and widely recognised in four or more years’ time. As a result, ‘critical’ research is either not done at all or else is abstracted from the particular to such an extent that it becomes vague and meaningless. Or, as Judith Butler said in the quote prefacing the call for papers:

Critique is always a critique of some instituted practice, discourse, episteme, institution, and it loses its character the moment in which it is abstracted from its operation and made to stand alone as a purely generalizable practice. (2001: 212, original emphasis)

This is not to say that we cannot generalize, as we surely do this all of the time. The issue is to avoid over-generalizing, on the one hand, and being mired in particularisms on the other (Morin, 2020). To effect this we need to impose and recognise appropriate limits on generalizing, or, as Butler puts it, we should develop a practice of ‘constrained generality’ (ibid.).

The case of corporate manslaughter

Corporate manslaughter is defined as an act of homicide committed by a company or an organization. Since 2008, it is a criminal offence in English law, as a result of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act (2007) that was introduced to the House of Commons after a series of tragic events in which management failure, either directly or indirectly, caused multiple deaths, but for which there was no clear legal process for redress. The first significant event occurred in 1987 when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized, resulting in the loss of 193 lives. The Director of Public Prosecutions brought charges against the ferry company and seven employees, but the trial judge held that the various acts of negligence could not be attributed to any individual who was a ‘controlling mind’ (McColgan, 1994). A year later, 35 people died when three trains collided in Clapham. In this case, the British Rail Board admitted liability, but, while compensation was paid, nobody was prosecuted for manslaughter (Hidden, 1989). In 1993, the owner of an activity centre was convicted for gross negligence manslaughter and jailed for three years after four teenagers drowned in the Lyme Bay kayaking tragedy. This case indicated that it was easier to convict where the company was relatively small and the ‘controlling mind’ could be easily identified (Dunford and Ridley, 1996). In 2003, an appeal court in Scotland rejected a charge of ‘culpable homicide’ brought against a gas pipeline firm, Transco, after four people died in Larkhall, though the company was fined £15m for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act (Shiels, 2004). In 2005, senior managers in Network Rail and Balfour Beatty were cleared of charges arising from the Hatfield rail crash in which four people died, though again both companies were fined for breaching health and safety regulations (Milner, 2005; Tait, 2005). Collectively, these cases exposed a gap in the legislation that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill (2007) sought to fill. The Irish parliament published a similar bill in 2016.

The topic of corporate manslaughter and corporate crime has been discussed extensively in the legal studies literature, at least as far back as the 1960s when the legal scholar, Alfred Conard, examined the economics of injury reparation (Conard et al., 1964). Perhaps the most influential contribution was the 74-page manuscript on corporate punishment by another legal scholar, John Coffee (1981), written not long after the Ford Motor company was unsuccessfully prosecuted for manslaughter for allegedly failing to correct known defects in the design of its Pinto car. In April 2021, Coffee’s paper had 1128 citations in Google Scholar (the vast majority in law publications) and 305 in the Web of Science, but of the latter, only seven are in what would be considered the management and organization studies (MOS) literature. Another notable contribution was by Clarkson (1996) and again most of the 131 citations to his paper are in the law literature. Significantly, the five citations to his paper in the MOS literature are all authored by Jeroen Veldman. The absence of any discussion in the MOS literature about corporate manslaughter is also clear from a search of the ABI/Inform database, which found no scholarly articles written by management academics on the topic before 2008, when the UK Act came into force.

Why might this be? Why does MOS have so little engagement with the legal dimensions of organizations? The critical management studies journal, Organization, has been around since 1994, so there was, one would think, a ready outlet for contributions. The notion that the corporation has the capacity to murder was well-known, not least because of Joel Bakan’s book, The corporation, in which he likened the corporation to a psychopath (Bakan, 2004). Why, then, did MOS have little or nothing to say about corporate manslaughter, at a time when legal scholars, practitioners and legislators were heavily involved in changing the law, so that corporations could be held to account?

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that management academics have collectively accepted and agreed that changing the law is not their responsibility and that it should be left to lawmakers and those with a deeper and specialist knowledge of the law. The Companies Act (2006) is the longest Act in British Parliamentary history—with 1,300 sections covering nearly 700 pages—and analysing or contributing to its formulation is beyond the expertise of management scholars, whose contributions must necessarily be more indirect. How many of us have read such statutes? Instead, the argument might go, the role of management scholars is to set the agenda, and then it would be up to other fields, law in particular, to handle the technical implementation. However, the corporate manslaughter case indicates that this explanation is unsatisfactory. What the case clearly shows is that management scholars were not involved in the conversation about corporate manslaughter, either directly or indirectly, and were in no way part of either setting the agenda or articulating necessary legislative changes. For me, and hopefully for you, a more compelling explanation is that most management academics are besotted with constructing general theory rather than making practical interventions. Even within the CMS community, the extensive discussion on ‘critical performativity’ is largely an abstract debate about the idea of performativity rather than substantive engagement with practitioners (Prasad et al., 2016; Butler et al., 2018)[5]. Practical interventions must routinely be focused on a particular location at a particular point in time, which problematizes any attempt at generalization. For instance, to properly address the issue of corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide one must change legislation in particular jurisdictions, as it happened in the UK in 2007 and in Ireland in 2016.

Re-locating the b-school

In 2004, Steffen Böhm and Sverre Spoelstra edited a special issue of ephemera (Volume 4, Issue 2) that addressed similar issues to this one. In their editorial piece, they wondered if CMS had achieved enough, asking:

Has the CMS project even come close to starting to have a real impact in the academy and wider spheres of society? Our answer is a clear No. (Böhm and Spoelstra, 2004: 98)

Sixteen years later, the editors of this special issue are even more downbeat:

If critical thinking once harboured the optimistic hope of making a practical difference, in the face of such a brutal reality it now risks being an inept moralising bystander grimacing at others’ attitudes as the ship goes down. (Fleming et al., 2020)

There is clearly no easy or single solution to the problem. It seems to me that four alternatives are available. The first is to simply shrug one’s shoulders, accepting that the world is imperfect and that, for better or worse, we should continue doing what we have been doing. It is not a perfect tent, but at least it is a tent. A second option is to walk out of the tent, which is perhaps the most honest course of action if one has concluded that the status quo is untenable and unlikely to change. A third option is to stay in the tent but to change one’s pursuits and priorities, such as ignoring the pressure to produce academic publications and instead to engage much more directly with practice, drawing perhaps on action research methodologies. A final option is to stay in the tent, but to put one’s effort into changing the systems that are perceived to ensnare CMS and MOS scholars. Not all of these options are mutually exclusive, and their relative merits will depend on one’s individual situation and prospects; however, in this paper I will focus on the last option.

Any attempt to change institutionalized systems and practices will necessarily be long and will involve a series of struggles, none of which will be easy. In such a context, I am advocating that the guiding light should be to bring location back in. Here, I am not talking about the social production of space, in the Lefebvrian tradition (Lefebvre, 1991) followed and fostered by people like Harvey (2006, 2009) and Soja (1989), but rather one that emphasizes location as a particular jurisdiction. We are overlooking something of significance if we talk about organization without bringing in the law – it is not for nothing that we speak of ‘law and order’ – or fail to recognise that law is rooted in particular locations, which is why we speak of the ‘law of the land’.

But reinserting location, and, more importantly, the local, into the lexicon of business academics will not be easy. To illustrate this, it is worth considering Jones and Munro’s (2005) comprehensive study of the organizational studies literature.  They catalogued the literature into 40 different issues, ranging from ‘aesthetics’ to ‘violence’, but none related to either location or the law. If academics are not talking about the law of the land, then it is difficult to see how their talk will change these laws. 

Overcoming prejudice against the local will be difficult, but not impossible. It should be considered an ideological adjustment requiring engagement and initiatives at different levels, from how higher education and research is funded to the design of individual programmes of study. I see the project of re-locating the b-school as having three primary elements; namely, de-internationalizing, re-integrating, and re-imagining, which I will now discuss.

De-internationalizing

So, what might de-internationalizing look like, and what role might CMS have in the process? First, there is much scope for CMS to engage with and provide a b-school perspective on the ‘critical internationalization studies’ literature. This literature probably emerged about a decade ago when Brandenburg and de Wit (2011) published a paper titled ‘The end of internationalization’ in which they critiqued the increasingly instrumental focus on internationalization in higher education. Subsequent contributions focused on how, by embracing a particular form of internationalization, ‘universities not only tacitly reproduce but also actively contribute to the reproduction of global inequality and harm’ (Stein, 2017: 14). A significant conversation on the topic has now emerged in the higher education policy literature (Knight, 2011, 2014; de Wit, 2015; Altbach and de Wit, 2017; Stein, 2017, 2019; Mok, 2018; Coelho et al., 2020). However, a citation search indicates that none of the key contributions to that conversation have been cited by papers in management education journals, such as Management Learning. This lacuna is surprising because b-schools have been a primary vehicle through which universities have sought to internationalize – for instance, almost all of the 4000 students in my university’s overseas operations are taking programmes run by the b-school – and because internationalization is often a foundation for their success. Thus, a practical step would be for CMS and management education scholars to engage with these debates by inquiring into issues such as: the dimensions of internationalization; forms of internationalization; the links between globalization, neoliberalism, and internationalization; b-school’s experience of internationalization; as well as the unintended consequences, dark sides, and ‘myths of internationalization’ (Knight, 2011). For instance, the rising tide of nationalism that runs through Brexit, Trump’s presidency, the growth of the Alt-Right, etc., can be at least partly seen as a backlash against unfettered globalisation and uncritical enthusiasm for internationalization. Nationalism, in its extreme form, is ugly, hateful and dangerous and should be suppressed. This means addressing the reasons why it has taken root, including more comprehensively analysing the complexities of globalization and, for b-schools and universities, their role in the process. Celebrating the local should not mean stigmatizing the global, and indeed it would be wrong to frame the issue around a binary choice between the two. And we should be ever-watchful for the fascism, hate and xenophobia that can emerge when the local becomes an obsession.

The conversation might also unpick the argument that the reduction of state funding and the liberalisation of higher education has turned education into a private good available to a global market. Universities are still deeply connected to the nation – often on a statutory basis – and have an important role in developing citizens, creating local knowledge, and educating a local workforce. Moreover, despite the reduction in direct state funding, much of university income can still be traced back to the state via research grants, state-supported student aid, etc. From this perspective, higher education is neither a commodity nor a private good, but instead is best seen as a public good, which brings particular responsibilities to the state’s citizens (Rhodes, 2017).

As well as having a broad debate within management and organization studies, the conversation should also have a local dimension, since this is where the rubber meets the road. For instance, b-school academics have particular expertise in setting out the financial risks of relying on students from far away for such a large proportion of the organization’s income. The coronavirus crisis has made this risk all too real, but one can envisage a range of circumstances – from social unrest to politically inspired restrictions to pandemics – that make such a heavy reliance on overseas students unwise.

B-schools have a particular and legitimate interest in the policy and practice of internationalizing as they have excelled in generating income from overseas students. However, the University of Leicester’s School of Business provides a salutary lesson on how this experience can play out. In the early part of this century, the School attracted a fully internationalized cohort of thousands of students, spread across study for all levels of award, with both on and off campus delivery, mitigating any potential downturn in any particular market. The School turned over tens of millions of pounds a year, with approximately 50% passed on to the central university. Under Gibson Burrell’s leadership, the school also became an important hub for critical management studies. However, in January 2021 the university management informed 16 staff in the School of Business, including Professor Burrell, that they were at risk of redundancy and that the School would be ‘divesting from research in Critical Management Studies and Political Economy’ (ULSB16, n.d.) Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

De-internationalizing will involve unwinding some of the practices that incentivize the international at the expense of the local. For instance, as part of the Bologna process, the fee to attend a university in any EU country became the same for all EU citizens, regardless of their domicile or citizenship. In contrast, the US privileges in-state students by setting their tuition fee as typically less than half the fee imposed on out-of-state students (Anonymous, 2020). Introducing a three-tier system in the EU (in-state fee, EU fee and non-EU fee) would at least recognise that universities are still part-funded by the state’s taxpayers and have national as well as EU-wide responsibilities. Another approach would be to pressurize those who compile university ranking schemes to reduce the weighting given to factors that incentivize internationalization.

One can expect resistance to any suggestion that universities, and b-schools in particular, should de-internationalize. Even if the leaders in a particular b-school thought it the right thing to do, one can anticipate arguments that it would be impossible because of the requirements of accreditation. Yet, different lines of attack can be identified. For instance, the accreditation bodies themselves recognise – partly as a consequence of becoming more global – that b-schools should not all adopt the same model. In particular, AACSB accreditation provides scope for re-asserting the importance of the local because it focuses on the alignment between a b-school’s practices and its articulated mission, rather than an idealized (American) model. One can also push the accreditation bodies to modify criteria that encourage the proliferation of American management ideas and practices that work to stigmatize the local.

Re-integrating

If de-internationalizing is primarily a university wide-project, re-integration is more about re-aligning or re-locating the b-school within the university’s constellation of academic disciplines. This will mean forging stronger links with disciplines that are rooted in particular locations and those that have traditionally eschewed the pursuit of generalized theory. Perhaps the most obvious such discipline is law, but other disciplines include history, classical studies, Celtic studies, many disciplines in the humanities, and also engineering.

Re-embedding the b-school into the university (recognising that some b-schools are not part of a university) will not be easy. Currie et al. (2016) helpfully map out what they see as a range of forces, institutional and otherwise, that work to separate off the b-school from other academic units within the university. For instance, accreditation bodies require a b-school to have reasonable autonomy in deciding its strategy, managing its budget and running its operations, which creates one barrier with other parts of the university. They also identify recent developments that push the other way. For instance, they put much store in the widespread perception that the complex problems of today require more interdisciplinary research, which should help lower the walls that separate the b-school from other disciplines. This may be the case, but my own sense is that b-school researchers typically play only a marginal, if not token, role in interdisciplinary research teams, which might explain why b-school academics have largely absented themselves from the wider conversation about how, why and when interdisciplinary research should be conducted and their own role and potential contribution to such endeavours. This is important because, despite routine exhortations, actually doing interdisciplinary research is far from easy, not least because the concept itself is very muddy. Advocates for, and experiments in, interdisciplinarity have been around since at least the 1950s (Sewell, 1989), but it is only in recent decades that the issue has been engaged with at a deeper level, with important distinctions emerging between disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research (Rosenfield, 1992; Max-Neef, 2005; Kessel and Rosenfield, 2008; Schaltegger et al., 2013). In particular, transdisciplinary research, as originally formulated by Edgar Morin (1992), seems especially relevant to the complex problems confronting business and society. B-school academics have a good opportunity to frame and contribute to the wider conversation on interdisciplinary research as b-schools already draw on many disciplinary traditions. Indeed there are some welcome indications that this is already happening, even if the dialogue is largely confined to management education (Gröschl and Gabaldon, 2018; Beckman and Schaltegger, 2020; Oliver et al., 2020).

Instead of hoping that interdisciplinary research will lower the b-school’s walls, another approach is to try to dismantle the practices that have built the walls in the first place. In this category we must foreground academic evaluation systems and journal ranking schemes which have received much attention in the literature, as well as in the coffee shops and public houses that academics frequent (Rowlinson et al., 2011; Mingers and Willmott, 2013; Tourish and Willmott, 2015; Buckley and Baur, 2020; Harley and Fleming, 2021). A common narrative is that neoliberalism has led to the marketization of higher education, which has had a pernicious effect on academia through a raft of metrics, journal ranking lists, league tables and the like. However, my sense is that academics, especially those in UK universities, have spent too much time complaining about these various measurement schemes. Measurement schemes, either implicit or explicit, are bound to exist as the basis for decision-making. Even in the late eighteenth century, German ministers of state were employing bureaucratic and market-based practices to reshape the working lives of academics in German universities (Clark, 2006). Hence, rather than complaining about the ABS list, it would be more productive for CMS scholars to get involved in designing and implementing alternative systems. And, if we want to re-integrate the b-school with the rest of the university, such a system should be university-wide or state-wide. Many such systems exist, such as the Bibliometric Research Indicator (BFI) in Denmark, the JUFO Publication Forum in Finland, the Current Research Information System (CRISTIN) in Norway, the AERES list in France, the ANVUR list in Italy, the Flemish Academic Bibliographic Database (VABB-SHW), and the Scholarly Publishers Indicators (SPI) in Spain.

My own university operates a university-wide, output-based research support scheme based around a ranked publication list that uses indicators from registers maintained by ministries in Norway and Denmark, a federation of learned societies in Finland, SNIP (Source Normalised Impact Factor per Paper), and CiteScore. The scheme has a number of advantages over better-known rankings, such as the ABS list. First, it recognises a much wider range of research outputs – including journal articles, books, book chapters, conference papers, and reports – than the ABS list, which only recognises journals. Second, the list includes a wide variety of publication outlets with very different understandings of epistemology and methodology. The current list has almost 55,000 entries for journals/book series/ conferences with about 20% ranked as ‘prestigious’. It also includes a large number of outlets that use languages other than English. Third, the publication list is university-wide and so faculty are not penalized for publishing in ‘non-business’ journals or for collaborating with colleagues outside of the b-school. Fourth, the scheme works to counter the bias in alternative ranking schemes that use either Scopus or the Web of Science as their data source and which are consequently biased towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. In particular, the scheme provides an opportunity for disciplines to make the case that particular publication outlets can be considered ‘prestigious’ even though they may have a local focus. Fifth, the scheme recognises the fallacy of trying to rank journals into five divisions – which the ABS list seeks to do – by having only two publication levels, normal and prestigious. Sixth, the scheme enables alternative forms of granular measurement, by, for instance, adjusting the weighting based on the number of authors and their affiliation.

Notwithstanding the merits of such a scheme, the ABS list continues to be used in my b-school. The resistance has come, not from deans or university managers, but from faculty colleagues, who have argued that potential future employers (and peers) will use the ABS list to assess one’s quality, rather than a list that is peculiar to the university. But one can only continue the struggle, as elements such as these in the administrative infrastructure are important in configuring collective and individual subjectivities.

Other approaches to re-integration centre on seeing the university as primarily a community. From this perspective, re-integration is an organizational issue on which b-school academics have a particular expertise and responsibility. Just as they played a not insignificant role in the corporatization of the university through proselytizing the language and practices of business, they can now help build a university as community by leveraging insights from decades studying organizations and organizing. In particular, the CMS community has much to offer on the back of its research into alternative and more democratic forms of organizing. Part of this would involve thinking through new (and old) ways of cultivating dissensus and dialogue as well as designing resilient and effective collective practices such as participatory budgeting and electing rather than appointing academics to senior positions (Fleming, 2020: 1309). Of course, these types of practices already exist to some degree; for instance, the highest-ranked Irish university in international league tables, Trinity College Dublin, still elects rather than appoints its Provost and other senior academics (Trinity College Dublin, 2021). The point for the b-school is to embrace rather than turn its back on the university, articulating an idea of the university as a community rather than, ironically, a business.

Finally, it is hard to overstate how important it is to support one’s local union – remembering that unions are almost invariably tied to particular jurisdictions – as it is only through collective action that local issues, such as the treatment of the academic precariat or the proposed redundancies at the University of Leicester, can be adequately addressed.

Re-imagining

This special issue is concerned with why critical thinking in the b-school has reached an impasse, what to do about this unfortunate situation, and how to re-imagine CMS. However, re-imaging CMS cannot be easily separated from re-imagining the role and purpose of b-schools, which, in turn, brings us into wider debates about re-imagining universities as teaching and research institutions. Running through all of these debates are questions about the valorization of context-free, objective, universal knowledge. Nowotny puts it well:

If we are ready to accept the fact that the image of a universal, invariant and context-independent science is becoming irrelevant for all practical purposes and it is the specific context, in which knowledge is produced, taken up and transformed, which matters, we must strive to heighten context-sensitivity and to spread its awareness. (1999: 255)

If context-sensitivity means anything, it surely means that location matters and that the law operating in that location – the law of the land – matters. Hence, calls by critical scholars and others for ethical business, equality and justice are fine, but they will not amount to much if they explicitly or implicitly ignore the law of the land.

In thinking through how the b-school might be re-imagined, it is helpful to understand how and why the institution has taken its present form, as this might give a sense of its longer-term trajectory. Here, Peters et al. (2018a) have usefully mapped the b-school’s evolution across five generations, and, interestingly, their map is mainly framed around location. While the first generation is centred on vocations (the b-school as a ‘trade school’), the second and third generations are focused on the US, the fourth on Western Europe and the fifth on emerging markets in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. Location and context continue to matter.

Location has always been – and should continue to be – central to the idea and identity of a university. The university is a place and a polis, a community entangled with its hinterland’s history and geography. And for the university and the b-school, this should be reaffirmed and celebrated, even if this runs against the marketization logic that seeks to turn universities into placeless competitors. In practice, this means framing responsibility through the lens of proximity, which universities and b-schools can do by supporting local businesses, local communities, and local cultures. Some of this will require groundwork in terms of ensuring that administrative structures and decision-making processes give due value to the local.

Location can also provide a useful lens for thinking through some new forms of the b-school that might be emerging. Parker (2018a), for instance, wants to replace the b-school with a ‘school of organising’, which would consider many different ways humans arrange the world in order to get things done, without centring on the private firm or the capitalist economy. Ferlie et al. (2010) present a thoughtful argument for a ‘public interest’ model of the b-school, though they never define ‘public’ and so it ends up meaning everyone in the world. There is, in their template, no concept or celebration of a particular, local polis, presumably because they do not want to be labelled as relativists or parochial. Hence, they valorize objective (location-less) knowledge and ‘a developing cumulative knowledge base rather than a series of unconnected short-term and local projects’ (ibid.: S67). They also see ‘the research intensive medical school as a comparator [for the public interest b-school] rather than the case based law school’ (ibid.), but in doing so they gloss over the important distinction between a medical research team developing a coronavirus vaccine, which should work for everyone in the world, and a legal scholar studying Irish constitutional law. Moreover, the concept of a prescription, which is meaningful in medicine, is less suited to the competitive world of business, where prescriptions are only effective if taken by some, but not all, actors. Contra to Ferlie et al., I would argue that the b-school should model itself on a law school, rather than a research-intensive medical school, as legal scholars can be directly and visibly involved in changing the law of the land and are not required to turn almost everything into a theoretical contribution. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with a theoretical, location-less idea. The trouble is when this becomes hegemonic, obliterating any claim that context is important.

Following Ferlie et al.’s (2010) paper, Cardiff Business School re-configured itself as the ‘world’s first Public Value Business School’ (Kitchener and Delbridge, 2020; Cardiff Business School, 2021). Its mission statement is ‘to make a positive impact in the communities of Wales and the world…[and] to help sustain our local and global economies’ (Cardiff Business School, 2021), but this fudges the local-global issue since positively impacting Welsh communities might negatively impact other, non-Welsh communities. But fudging is perhaps inevitable once a b-school tries to articulate what it values and what it does not value. Should it, for instance, support a local homeless charity or a poverty alleviation programme in Ethiopia? Even if it tries to do both, centring the b-school on values does problematize the traditional academic tendency of not taking a normative stance and of being silent on moral issues (Anteby, 2013; Chung, 2016). The hope, then, is that the re-imagined business school will articulate and manifest its values and be willing to take a normative position on matters of concern. While there are clearly global issues of import, such as climate change, these should not crowd out local concerns.

This focus on the local can also help re-imagine our understanding of research and the education of researchers. The local, in research, should not just be the source of a convenient sample that the researcher uses to contribute to a theoretical conversation. Rather, research is better conceptualized as a dialectical process that articulates the two-way relationship between the local case and the generalized abstraction. It is not just a question of what the local can do for the theoretical, but also what the theoretical can do for the local. This two-way relationship tends to get glossed over in the long time horizon of doctoral research and doctoral programmes that train students in how to be an academic and how to make theoretical (location-less) contributions. The result is a narrow understanding of research and, in particular, little emphasis on how research might impact public policy or changes in the law of the land. Addressing this means de-emphasizing the PhD and PhD supervision – especially in hiring and promotion metrics – and re-emphasizing research in undergraduate programmes and research masters. In particular, the research Master’s should be celebrated as it enables timely inquiry into a contemporary, local issue of importance, without the pressure to produce general theory.

Valuing the local also frames what researchers consider worth studying (and not studying). The new dispensation should foster research into phenomena such as community supported agriculture (Watson, 2020), local food production systems, community-based enterprises (Hertel et al., 2019), as well as key concepts such as the local, community, collective agency, mutualism, and place. The research should have a clear policy dimension, emphasising actions that should be taken, especially changes to the law, rather than simply harping on about what is wrong with the world. And there is much scope to inquire into Parker’s (2017: 418) assertion that ‘a localized small business system is more resilient to economic shocks, as well as providing clear advantages in terms of environmentally friendly business practices and the reduction of inequality’.

Re-imagining also extends to how the b-school positions itself as a teaching institution. While I have much sympathy with Harney and Thomas’ (2020) vision of a new form of undergraduate education centred on the liberal arts, I feel this is too narrow. Engineering, science, and medicine all have much to offer and we would be doing students a disservice by not recognizing this or by demonizing these disciplines. Students of business should not be overwhelmed by physics envy, but they do need to understand how physicists, physicians, engineers and lawyers engage with the world and the benefits and limits of these different perspectives. And they should also understand how different perspectives lead to different actions and interventions, which always have a political and ethical dimension.

The move to online learning that will almost certainly occur as a consequence of COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity to re-imagine what, who and how b-schools will teach in the future. Having explored the issue in our own institution, our sense is that the future will be a blended model of online learning complemented by intensive on-campus sessions, which is very suited to students living locally (where locally might be within 200 km of campus).

Re-imagining the b-school and university is a long-term project that should draw on our shared traditions and competencies in building a resilient vision of the future. That vision can only be realised through a combination of individual, institutional and systemic changes, similar to the catalogue of initiatives that helped transform Cardiff Business School into a public value business school (Kitchener and Delbridge, 2020: 314). A notable feature of that case was the commitment of senior faculty to the vision, which is a good example of senior faculty leading by setting a good example (Harley, 2019).

Concluding remarks

Does critique have a future in the b-school? Critique will always have a future, but CMS, as a distinct field within management and organization studies, might not. I say this because (i) CMS has tended to equate critique with fault-finding and is shy about making positive proposals for change; (ii) the term ‘CMS’ seems to imply that other management academics are unable or unwilling to engage in critical thinking, which comes across as arrogant; and (iii) critical writing on organizations is ‘too often pretentious, obscurantist and dull’ (Grey and Sinclair, 2006: 445). The cynic might add that CMS ‘allows reasonably well paid professionals to feel just a little bit rakish and dangerous, as they simultaneously meet the demands of promotions committees, research evaluation exercises and fly the world to important meetings’ (Parker, 2010: 297). The cynic would also probably see this special issue as just the latest output from a lucrative cottage industry that publishes writings about the travails and future of CMS.

Much of that writing is about how ‘critical performativity’ might work as a driveshaft linking CMS’s intellectual engine with the muddy wheels of practice (Spicer et al., 2016). In that discussion, I side with Fleming and Banerjee (2016) who dismiss the idea of CMS scholars getting managers to change their practices by interacting with them. Instead, they argue that CMS scholars should take action locally, within their business schools and universities. They also advocate a ‘critical pedagogy’ that presents ‘both negative and positive cases in a mutually informative exchange between students and instructors’ (ibid.:269). In this sense, critique is more akin to appreciation than fault-finding, where the management academic – not just those on team-CMS – take a role similar to a film critic, identifying and discussing what is bad and good in practice. The move, in short, is from performativity to normativity (Parker and Parker, 2017; Kavanagh and Cusack, 2020). Their third tack is to foster a ‘public CMS’ that engages in awareness-raising initiatives using, in particular, the broadcasting media. This makes much sense, though it is easier said than done, requiring a somewhat different skill-set and a clear sense of one’s audience, one’s polis.

One person who has done this is Chris Grey, who, after making excellent contributions to the CMS and MOS literatures, is now writing a highly regarded and influential blog on Brexit (Grey, 2021), which is perhaps a good model for the future of critique in the b-school. In his blog, Grey addresses and analyses a highly contextual, local issue that matters to him and other British citizens. Crucially, his blog is about changes to the law of the land in a particular jurisdiction; his country. It is a local issue, but one of historical importance. His blog is not an attempt to engage with managers or change managerial practices, and so is not a form of critical performativity. Nor does it seek to formulate a theoretical contribution or generalize (Brexit, of course, is a one-off). Nor is it trying, in the tradition of engaged scholarship (Van de Ven and Johnson, 2006), to bridge a perceived gap between theory and practice. One might argue that Grey is dabbling in political journalism. But so what? The long years he has spent in various b-schools must have given him a deep understanding of how business and commerce works, while his research has surely enhanced his ability to critically analyse complex issues.

Perhaps the best strategy for critical scholars is to identify and engage with a few important local issues where their own research skills and disciplinary knowledge can be leveraged. Such issues might be in the scholar’s own institution or sector, or they might involve changes to the law of the land or shifts in public policy in a particular jurisdiction. After all, all politics is local.

acknowledgements

I sincerely thank Tony Brabazon, Sebastian Green, Séamas Kelly, John McCallig, Bill Roche and Martin Parker for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank the editors of this special issue and two reviewers for their generous suggestions and helpful advice.


[1] Parker is just one in a long line of people who have criticised the b-school. Notable contributions to this large literature include the following: Pfeffer and Fong (2002) found little evidence that management education had a positive effect upon career success (or managerial performance); Bennis and O’Toole (2005) argued that b-schools are too focused on ‘scientific’ research, are hiring faculty with limited real-world experience, and are graduating students ill-equipped for management; Grey (2004), taking a critical perspective, argued that management education should explicitly acknowledge the political, ethical, and philosophical nature of management practice; Davies and Starkey (2020) provide a recent review of contributions to the debate.

[2] A ‘top-50 b-school’ is usually understood as being in the top 50 in the Financial Times ranking of business schools (Financial Times, 2021). However, the term is nebulous, not least because there are many ranking schemes with different methodologies.

[3] The University of Bristol does not have a conventional b-school, which is perhaps why Parker moved there.

[4] An ABS-ranked journal is one that features in the ranked list of journals produced by the Chartered Association of Business Schools (Anonymous, 2021).

[5] There are, of course, exceptions, such as Parker and Parker’s (2017) ethnographic study which highlighted the difficulties in realizing critical performativity. There are also a few attempts to promote and support political engagement, such as Organization’s Acting Up section.

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the author(s)  

Donncha Kavanagh is Professor of Information and Organisation in the College of Business at University College Dublin, Ireland. His research interests include the sociology of knowledge and technology, the history and philosophy of management thought, money, play and ethics. He has published widely in the fields of information and organization, management, marketing, organization studies, and engineering. Orcid ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7718-2303. Web: https://people.ucd.ie/donncha.kavanagh.

Email: donncha.kavanagh AT ucd.ie