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'The Apprentice': a case study

Business schools nationwide find some real lessons in reality TV hit

By Sasha Talcott
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2004
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As case studies go, it is admittedly a bit of a deviation from standard business school fare. There's none of the reams of data, and backbiting tends to win.

But at business schools across the country these days, Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" is all the rage, working its way into classroom discussions on everything from what's fair play in negotiations to how to win customers -- or even on how the Donald should style his hair.

"The Apprentice" is the reality show you don't have to be ashamed to watch. Living/Arts, D1

"I teach from the Harvard Business School cases; they're not as exciting as what's on 'The Apprentice,' " said Beth Goldstein, an adjunct professor at Brandeis University's International Business School, who frequently brings up the show in her consulting class. "If there's a lesson on a recent Trump, it can become integrated in the whole learning opportunity."

There's an entire management class at the University of Washington in Seattle that is devoted to the show, complete with an hourlong question and answer session with one of Trump's assistants. At Georgetown University, the accounting and finance faculty, who usually turn up their noses at other reality shows like "Survivor," are eagerly rehashing "Apprentice" episodes in the hallways and have even formed a pool to guess the winner.

When "The Apprentice" finale airs tonight, it will be down to the final two: the Ivy League Kwame or self-made Bill. Both will duke it out to decide who wins the $250,000-a-year position as one of Trump's assistants. But the real lessons will be played out in classrooms during the coming weeks, as business professors dissect the winner to determine why he rose to the top.

At Boston College's Carroll School of Management this week, professor Gregory Stoller launched into a discussion on the nuts and bolts of Massachusetts real estate law, laced with terms such as "lis pendens," "encumbrance," and "determination of applicability." Facing his entrepreneurial finance class, he paused a moment for effect.

"How many people watch 'The Apprentice?' " he asked about two dozen students taking notes or typing on their laptops. He briefly recounted a recent episode in which one character used aggressive negotiating tactics to wrest an apartment he wanted away from the other team's leader.

"He said, 'Whatever you want is what I want,' " Stoller said. "Is that unethical? Or is that just good business?"

At the center of the classroom, a student in a collared shirt and glasses shot back, "It's nasty, but I think it's ethical."

The lesson, the professor said later in the discussion, is that there's a "fine line" between aggressiveness and illegality. It's OK to be tough, he said, but boundaries should always be respected.

"There's a fine line between being like Omarosa in 'The Apprentice' and respecting the boundaries," Stoller said, referring to the show's divisive character who has alternately shirked her work, argued with her teammates, or bungled the assignment altogether.

"The Apprentice" works like an 15-part job interview. The candidates are divided into teams, then asked to complete various tasks. Members of the losing team have to come to Trump's boardroom, where one will be fired.

During one early episode, Trump asked the teams to create an ad campaign for a private jet company. Immediately, the all-female team asked for a meeting with the company's executives. But the male team decided that they did not have enough time.

While watching the episode at home, the Brandeis professor, Goldstein, found herself screaming at the doll-size men on her television set: "We don't need to talk to the client? He's going to get fired!"

Her 8-year-old son looked at his mother and began to laugh. But within the hour, Trump had proven Goldstein's hunch correct, as he fired the team leader.

The next week, Goldstein surveyed her Brandeis consulting class, asking why they thought the female group had won. She also asked them to weigh in on how they would have approached the situation differently.

"There are some really valuable business lessons to be learned," Goldstein said. "They've made a lot of classic mistakes."

The professors said "The Apprentice" will never take the place of textbooks or traditional case studies. But they argued that it can have a place alongside them.

"We incorporate all kinds of events," said Roy Lewicki, a professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University, who has talked about a handful of Trump episodes in his classes. "This is no more or less relevant than any other materials."

And at the University of Washington, about 80 undergraduates in the Management Lessons from "The Apprentice" class watch the show each week and come up with their own business plans for the tasks presented on television. Their final exam: A journal of real-life lessons that they learned from Trump.

The lecturer, Laura Schildkraut, said the class provides perfect fodder for her course.

"Everyone says, 'Oh, it's not realistic. You don't go out and sell lemonade,' " she said. "But the students are seeing some of their peers go through the job-interview process. I don't look at 'You're fired' as 'You're fired.' It's, 'You're not going to get the position with our company.' "

In guessing the winner of tonight's finale, the business professors would like to think they hold a bit of an edge. The Georgetown professors, who plan to have drinks and watch the show, have a pool going to see whose business acumen is the best.

"Do we have the inside track? The academic in me would love to say yes, but it's probably untrue," said Lee Pinkowitz, a Georgetown assistant professor of finance.

But perhaps it is: Months ago, Pinkowitz picked Bill.

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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