Harvard Business School raises a laugh

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The Independent Online

The words "Harvard Business School" rarely raise a laugh. Respect, maybe. Fear, sometimes. But not a laugh.

That was until Jeffrey Skilling, the chief executive of Enron, gave evidence to the Senate Commerce Committee last Tuesday. Mr Skilling said he was not an accountant, so he did not have an understanding of the manipulation of the energy giant's accounts through special purpose entities. He said he did not know enough to see that there was anything wrong with these deals, which kept debts off Enron's books and made millions for company insiders and their partners.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Californian Democrat, expressed her disbelief. "Where were you educated?" she asked. "Harvard Business School," replied Mr Skilling, prompting enough laughter to bring the house down.

The Boston-based institution is feted as the best management school in the world; Bill Gates flunked out of it, Sir Martin Sorrell and Greg Dyke were propelled forward by it, and Mark McCormack famously lampooned it in his memoir What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School. Next weekend it hosts a seminar chaired by Warren Buffett.

Mr Skilling studied there between 1977 and 1979, receiving an MBA. The Independent on Sunday has obtained a copy of the curriculum for those years. Among the first year's courses are "Finance", which includes teaching "students to use the standard techniques of financial analysis" as well as "control" which gives "an introduction to accounting as a systematic information system" and "Organizational Problems" (sic). Optional courses include "Law and the Corporate Manager" but Harvard could not say whether Mr Skilling took this.

What he did study was "Productions and Operations Management", where the tutor was Chip Bupp. In a now famous incident, Dr Bupp was asking students how they would react if they ran a company that was manufacturing a product that was found to possibly, but not definitely, have harmful effects on consumers. A hand shot up. "Jeff, what would you do?" asked Dr Bupp.

"I'd keep making and selling the product," answered the youthful Mr Skilling, for it was he. "My job as a businessman is to be a profit centre and to maximise return to the shareholders. It's the government's job to step in if the product is dangerous."

The worrying thing for corporate America, says former Congressman John LeBoutilier who witnessed the incident, was that quite a few students nodded in agreement.

In Mr Skilling's time he could have taken "Ethical aspects of corporate policy". Perhaps more to his liking would have been two courses not available at the time, but which have been offered since. One is called "Power and Influence" and the other is "The Business World: Moral and Social Enquiry Through Fiction".

This option should be studied with a copy of Enron's most recent report and accounts handy.