Business Schools Scrambling to Stay Current

Shrinking pool of students and shifting business demands force new look

THE business press has been discussing it. Corporate recruiters have complained about it. Even students have been critical: Business schools around the country - particularly master's programs - have not kept pace with a business environment that has changed dramatically over the decades.

Because of corporate dissatisfaction and a dwindling number of applicants, these schools are jumping on the bandwagon to ``reinvent'' the MBA. Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., for example, is seeing the results of a revamped Graduate School of Business program. Students at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota are finishing up the first year with a revised curriculum.

``The substance of curriculums will have to change on an evolutionary basis to remain relevant,'' says Charles Hickman, director of projects and services at the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business in St. Louis.

Some educators say the changes at many schools do not go far enough, however. They worry that schools are making promises they cannot deliver on. They are concerned that changes are superficial, or that new curriculums will be undermined by a reluctant faculty.

Willing to take risks

What Babson and the Carlson School have in common, however, is years of listening to what their ``clients'' (businesses) are looking for in an employee, plus in-depth strategic planning, hard-won faculty cooperation, and willingness to take risks and submit to scrutiny.

Smaller schools and programs trying to advance their rankings ``have a little more incentive - and not as much to lose - in introducing radical change,'' Mr. Hickman says. ``They know they have to do something that distinguishes them from the rest of the crowd in order to advance in the hierarchy of business schools.''

In 1987, when graduate school dean Thomas Moore first came to Babson, there was a tangible feeling among several administrators that the school needed to do something different. A graduate curriculum committee began investigating what other schools had done. It also examined what Babson did best in an effort to capitalize on those strengths.

In 1988, Babson launched a series of experiments around integrating the ``functional skills'' of its MBA program (accounting, statistics, marketing, etc.). The result is a program intended to teach students ``what every manager needs to know'' in the first year, and ensure a global perspective and in-depth understanding of a functional area in the second.

``We really decided to put a stake in the ground, redesign a new program, and throw out the old one,'' Mr. Moore says.

First-year course work at Babson is encompassed in four ``modules.'' Students trace a business cycle from the discovery of a product or service, through assessing a business opportunity, to building marketing and delivery systems, and on to further development of the product. The functional skills are taught only as needed. ``Everybody told us that [students] wouldn't understand enough about the functions to understand what the larger problems [of a company] are,'' says Stephen Allen, faculty coordinator of the new MBA program. ``We found just the opposite.''

One way the Babson faculty made sure their theory would fly was by requiring students to spend about 20 percent of their time in the first year working with and studying a real company. During the second year, students work on operational projects for firms - anything from major market studies to reorganizing factory flows. ``The main criteria is that the results will add significant value for the company,'' Moore says.

Robin Foley, a first-year student who worked at Putnam Investments in Boston before starting at Babson full time, says she has to draw on theories and skills that she has not used in class in her work with a video-conferencing company. ``The faculty adviser is helping us out with these,'' she says, ``and the professors encourage us to bring up mentor company issues in class.''

Babson's international focus is what attracted Ms. Foley to the program. All full-time Babson students must complete part of their degrees in another country. One-third of the MBA program is comprised of international students. And faculty with little international experience are sent overseas as projects advisers. ``We couldn't have a global structure driven by people who haven't done it themselves,'' Professor Allen says.

Though the revamped program has received positive reviews so far by professors and students, some faculty members were opposed from the outset and chose to teach elsewhere in the college. ``Some of our faculty think we're in the business of management education; others believe we're in the business of preparing managers,'' Moore says. ``I believe that is the fundamental mindset difference.''

Carlson's new curriculum

When Carlson launched a revised MBA program last year, some faculty were cautious, says associate dean Randi Yoder. Nevertheless, a new curriculum, including 17 courses and five new experimental components, was designed by 60 percent of the faculty working on interdisciplinary teams. ``Business schools have a big problem with different departments talking to each other,'' Ms. Yoder says. ``So that was revolutionary in itself.''

The change at Carlson began in 1991 when the new dean, David Kidwell, led a strategic planning process involving more than 300 people from the surrounding business, government, and nonprofit communities. ``We put ourselves on the line with [those communities] and said, `What do we need to do?,' '' Yoder says. ``They gave us the charge.''

In addition to a revised curriculum, this year the school will launch the ``Carlson Global MBA,'' a two-year degree with the International School of General Management (ISGM) in Bad Waldsee, Germany. ISGM is the first German institute to offer an MBA degree taught entirely in English. The program includes one year of core courses at Carlson and a second year at ISGM.

``I think our old program was right for the way business was done five or 10 years ago,'' Yoder says. ``But [the world] has become more global. The whole dynamic of business has changed. And the MBA program hadn't addressed any of that.''

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