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A `Poet' at Business School Faces Finance, Accounting

Former presidential speech writer pursues an MBA

AT one particularly desperate point in his first year at Stanford business school, Peter Robinson likened his experience to that of Dante in ``The Divine Comedy.''

Given such a comparison, it is not surprising that Robinson, a former speech writer for President Reagan, has titled his account of that formative first year, ``Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA.''

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Despite its ominous title, however, this book offers a complete picture of both the good and the bad that accompany the quest for a master of business administration degree. From never-ending word problems to job-offer elation, Robinson's primer covers it all.

Fresh from his job at the White House, the author arrived in California in 1988. He looked forward to the next two years of studying a discipline that had always fascinated him and to pepping up his stalled career.

``I had come to Stanford for a new start, following the American logic: If the land on the old homestead is played out, pick up and move west,'' he writes.

His enthusiasm soon waned as he discovered that his abilities as a wordsmith would not help him in required classes that demanded not a dictionary, but a calculator.

At Stanford University, students, like Robinson, who came to the MBA program without much math experience, were officially referred to as ``poets'' - hence, the Dante comparison. They struggled through finance and accounting courses but regained their self-esteem in Public Sector Economics and Business in the Changing Environment - courses that afforded them opportunities to discuss concepts, rather than just numbers.

Nevertheless, Robinson found the majority of his subjects dull and impenetrable. He writes that he felt ``stupid,'' sleep-deprived, and often asked himself in his journal entries why he was there.

``Yet the most difficult aspect of the work lay not in its sheer volume,'' Robinson recalls, ``but in adjusting from politics to business. Politics was big ideas and talk. Business was implementation, organization, specifics, numbers.''

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Insult was added to injury that first year when Business Week magazine ranked Stanford the ninth-best - out of more than 500 - business school in the United States.

Stanford was usually somewhere at the top of the list. So this new, lower ranking prompted concern from students about their marketability, the quality of their courses, and the school's reputation - which were, after all, the reasons why they were paying so much money to go there.

Robinson's treatment of this event sheds some light on issues of business school curriculum, purpose, and staffing.

``Snapshots from Hell'' is akin to Scott Turrow's 1977 book ``One L,'' which documented life for a first-year student at Harvard Law School. Robinson's writing is engaging but can be slow in spots where he describes technical questions from his classes. The author's advice: Skip these parts. ``I often wished I could skip some material myself,'' he writes.

The most interesting sections are those in which Robinson discusses the history of business schools; debates with others about whether a business education is needed for landing a good job (``MBA degrees are union cards for yuppies,'' one skeptical professor quips); and tells his tales about interviewing with ``media barons'' Rupert Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell, and computer whiz Steve Jobs. (After a short-lived job with Murdoch, Robinson is now, once again, a writer.)

Ultimately, this book gives readers a thorough look at the rigors involved in getting an MBA, and it shows how one ``poet'' came to appreciate business school.

``It might not help you to dispose your soul or reach a conclusion about the meaning of existence,'' Robinson writes, ``but business school would tell you quite a lot about what was going on in your workplace, your grocery store, or your shopping mall, helping you to understand the economic activities that take up the larger part of most people's waking lives. It seemed to me now that that was no small claim.''

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