Business Schools Counsel Grads in Financial Crisis

Last week, Harvard Business School mounted its own emergency rescue mission on Wall Street.

In the school’s first intervention on behalf of newly minted graduates, seven Harvard career coaches flew to New York to huddle with 18 members of the Class of 2008 who had taken jobs at troubled firms like Lehman Brothers Holding Co. and Merrill Lynch. All were still working, but didn’t know what the next day would bring. Harvard’s delegation promised to set up interviews with other employers.

“We wanted to help them navigate very choppy waters,” said Jana P. Kierstead, managing director of MBA career services at Harvard Business School, where 44 percent of this year’s graduates went into financial services. “What they thought they signed on for has changed. The dynamics of the industry have changed. So they each have to decide whether they want to pursue other opportunities.”

Business schools are responding with counseling, classroom analysis, curriculum changes, and case studies to the convulsions that have led to the bankruptcy or fire sales of leading U.S. financial firms and efforts toward a federal bailout. At schools that have long funneled graduating MBAs to Wall Street, professors are teaching about the crisis, even as their students ponder what it will mean for their careers.

“It’s shocking,” said Akbar A. Thobhani, 31, a second-year student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, who interned at Lehman Brothers last summer and had hoped to land a full-time job there. “No one’s getting offers now. They told us, ‘Thank you for your summer.’ Now a lot of us are reconsidering everything.”

Many longtime faculty members and administrators say they have never seen a series of events with greater potential to transform the focus of business education — and the career trajectories of their students.

“This is the intellectual lodestone of the 21st century,” said Carl Kester, deputy dean of academic affairs and finance professor at Harvard Business School. He said a number of professors already have begun researching case studies on this month’s spate of bank failures. “Our biggest responsibility right now is to grapple with this intellectually. We want to understand what got us in this situation, what needs to be done, and the shape of Wall Street going forward.”

“It’s the classic teachable moment,” said Philip Strahan, finance professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “I start every class with 15 or 20 minutes about what happened last week. In talking to my colleagues, they’re also talking about it in every class.”

Thomas Donaldson, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has called “time outs” in his classes to address the Wall Street turbulence, and is modifying his course next semester to address the issues being raised. Last week, he said, a Wharton panel on Wall Street’s woes drew more than 1,000 students.

“We send a third or more of our students into banking or financial services,” he said, “so this is a big thing for us. It’s got our attention as educators and students.”

Many second-year students typically receive job offers just after Labor Day. This year, a smaller number of those offers have come through, students and administrators said. Even relatively healthy firms, such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have delayed making offers.

“There’s going to be 30 percent fewer jobs, maybe 50 percent, on Wall Street,” warned Howard Anderson, a professor at the Sloan School and a former venture capitalist. “And everyone who graduated last year is coming back into the marketplace because Lehman just fired them. People are going to have to get a real job.”

For some students who’d thought they were Wall Street-bound, that “real job” might be in the corporate finance department of a technology or a manufacturing company. It might be in a financial niche, such as private equity, less affected by investment banking problems. Or it might be at a start-up or in a field outside of finance.

“Wall Street was an option, but now I’m not so sure,” said Melissa Iagulli, 26, a first-year Sloan student. “A lot of us are discouraged by what we’ve seen. Consulting is sounding good.”

But even if she signed on with a management consulting firm, Iagulli said, she would likely be deployed to advise surviving financial firms on how to restructure and move forward. “The finance industry will need a lot of help,” she said, citing anticipated restrictions on exotic types of investing. “Now that investment firms won’t be able to short stocks, they’ll have to find some other way to make money.”

The impact has been cushioned on those business schools that haven’t been major feeders to Wall Street investment banks. More than 200 companies attended a career fair last week at Bentley College in Waltham, which places many students at Boston asset-management firms like Fidelity Investments and State Street Corp. as well as in the finance and accounting departments of non-financial firms.

Even in the classroom, Bentley has soft-pedaled the crisis. “In a sense, it hasn’t impacted our curriculum at all,” said Bentley provost Bob Galliers. “We were already educating our students to understand risk, to understand ethics, and we’re putting all this in a broad context. This is an example of what can go wrong. But if this hadn’t happened, other examples would have been given.”

Sloan, by contrast, has been making a stronger play to the finance industry. The school, which typically sends 25 to 30 percent of its graduates into financial services, will this fall. begin taking applications for a new master of finance degree program intended to make graduates “even more attractive and important to potential employers on Wall Street and beyond.”

A Sloan alumni career adviser, Ken White, said he already has had individual counseling sessions with about a dozen Sloan alums working at Lehman Brothers, which has filed for bankruptcy protection.

White said at least one is considering a career switch. He’s thinking about becoming a financial regulator — potentially a growth field in the aftermath of the crisis.

“I’m telling them not to follow the crowd,” White said. “If everyone’s flocking to hedge funds, go someplace else. Go to the feds.”