By Christopher Shea

Donald Trump has redrawn the New York skyline and altered the prime-time television solar system. Could he do the same for business education?

In May, the helmet-haired superdeveloper announced the founding of “Trump University.” At the inaugural press conference in New York, The Donald lambasted “the traditional business education model” with its emphasis on “book learning.” At first, Trump said, his namesake educational venture would amount to an online site offering interactive courses — at a cost of $300 each — on such subjects as how to start a business or buy a house. But the business mogul held open the possibility that Trump U. would eventually have a campus — ivy and all.

In fact, Trump U. poses no immediate threat to existing business schools. Since it offers no certificates or diplomas, it can’t even be considered a rival to for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, according to Sean R. Gallagher, an analyst at Boston-based Eduventures, a consulting firm that advises a range of for-profit and nonprofit educational institutions. Trump University, Gallagher says, is entering a “pretty crowded space,” one with a large “guru factor,” going up against publishers of how-to guides and the kind of get-rich seminars advertised on late-night TV.

Trump University’s target student is “not at all the same person who is going to spend two years of his life and $100,000 to go to business school,” concedes Michael Sexton, president of Trump U. and a former consultant at Accenture. Rather, he says, his competition will be “the business section of Barnes & Noble,” where small-business owners with practical problems often wind up by default, “hoping the answer will leap out at them.”

Whether or not Trump U. succeeds in shaking up the retail end of business education — or eventually taking on the big boys — the elite end is facing challenges of its own, including questions about the teaching methods and even the career-enhancing value of traditional MBA programs.

In an article in the May issue of Harvard Business Review, Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole, management professors at the University of Southern California, charge that B-schools “have quietly adopted an inappropriate — and ultimately self-defeating — model of academic excellence.” Their leaders, the authors go on to say in the article, “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” have fallen prey to the “faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology.”

The root problem is the kind of work professors are encouraged to do. “Some of the research produced is excellent,” they write, “but because so little of it is grounded in actual business practices, the focus of graduate business education has become increasingly circumscribed — and less and less relevant to practitioners.”

Business programs, Bennis and O’Toole say, have traveled from one extreme to another. In the late 1950s, they write, management professors “were good ole boys dispensing war stories, cracker-barrel wisdom, and the occasional practical pointer.” But at the end of that decade, the Ford and Carnegie foundations issued scathing reports saying these schools were a weak link in higher education: they needed to place more emphasis on producing solid research. Now there is the opposite problem. Professors know little about business and instead churn out articles with titles like “Social Networks, the Tertius Iungens Orientation, and Involvement in Innovation” (an example from the March issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, a publication the authors single out for criticism).

It’s time, Bennis and O’Toole write, for B-schools to retether themselves to the real world, by, for example, reforming their curriculum (less drilling on econometric equations, more humanistic study of leadership, including reading Shakespeare) and providing more chances to learn hands-on management skills — perhaps by running actual businesses, which students would help oversee as part of their coursework (just as law schools sponsor legal clinics).

The article has stirred up some heated discussion, in the course of which nearly all of Bennis and O’Toole’s assumptions have been disputed. A Harvard Business School spokesman, for instance, says that that school’s reliance on the case-study approach keeps real-world business front and center in the curriculum. O’Toole replies that while the case method is better than other teaching models, the professors who teach the cases still have their heads in arcane mathematical research or else they wouldn’t get tenure. “It doesn’t really matter what it says in the curriculum,” he says. “You teach what you know.”

But John H. Vogel, Jr., an adjunct professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business (who happens to be creating a course for Trump University), raises another objection. “Most of us who teach in business schools do a fair amount of consulting,” he says. “I do a fair amount of training for Bank of America, and real-estate corporations, and developers. It’s one of the ways that I keep in touch with what’s going on in the business world.”

Still, the Harvard Business Review article is in sync with a number of other recent attacks on business education. Last year, in Managers Not MBAs (Berrett-Koehler), McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg wrote that business schools “train the wrong people in the wrong ways, with the wrong consequences.” They admit money-hungry 25-year-olds with high test scores and a couple of years of grunt work at consulting firms under their belts, he charges, when instead they should be admitting older, proven managers and taking them to the next level.

A falloff in applications also has business schools worried. The Graduate Management Admission Council reported last year that 78 percent of full-time MBA programs reported a drop in admissions for the current school year. Young workers themselves may be recalibrating the worth of an MBA.

In 2002, in a much-discussed article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education, Stanford business school’s Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina T. Fong surveyed studies done since 1971 of the effects of an MBA on one’s career. These studies, focusing on specific companies and investment banks, found in large part that MBA recipients did no better than anyone else.

But that finding, too, is not uncontroversial. The Financial Times, in a story about Bennis and O’Toole’s Harvard Business Review article, recounted the results of a survey it conducted: Class of 2001 graduates from the top 10 American business schools were earning an average of $145,000 annually three years later. That was nearly two and a half times what these people earned pre-MBA. However, the lower a school was on the prestige totem pole, the lower the salary effects.

Of course, traditional business education will continue to have its defenders — including, in unguarded moments, The Donald himself. Last spring, for example, after Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld argued in the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s show The Apprentice had little to do with real business practice (it was more like The Gong Show, Sonnenfeld wrote), Trump retorted on the letters page that clearly Sonnenfeld had no idea what it took to run a company.

“Perhaps,” Trump wrote, “that is why he is a professor at Yale instead of the Wharton School of Finance (my alma mater).”