Diversity is the key to US success

Revamped courses are attracting consultants, bankers and Broadway dancers, says Peter Brown
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The Independent Online

In January 2002, Enron collapsed and the American business scene suddenly looked different. New MBA courses were a dime a dozen but applications - taken as a whole across the States - went into freefall.

More recently, a group of academic critics, led by Henry Mintzberg, attacked the way the MBA was taught in America. It had, they said, lost contact with reality. Schools were inflexible and too theoretical.

Business schools in Europe, sensing blood, stressed the more international nature of their courses and hinted that America was inward-looking. They also pointed to American visa difficulties because of increased security.

Through all this, magically, the better American schools lost none of their prestige in the eyes of employers. In this year's FT global MBA rankings only London Business School and INSEAD managed to join the Americans in the top 10. The truth is that Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and the rest may have seen a slight dip in applications, but nothing to worry them. It was the lower orders that suffered.

At the moment applications are up across the sector. Ted Snyder, dean of Chicago Business School, says the weak dollar has "given America a breather", though rising fees and faculty costs continue to be a threat. It certainly makes an American MBA look better value than before.

The criticism, however, has not gone unheard, and two of the top schools, Stanford and Yale, have completely revamped their curricula. For the first time they are also requiring MBA students to spend time abroad.

Stanford, basking in a $105m (£58m) gift from its alumnus Phil Knight, founder and chairman of Nike, has virtually turned its MBA on its head, teaching core subjects later rather than sooner.

"There's an incredible diversity in the class," says Derrick Bolton, Stanford's MBA admissions director, "from students who've been in inner city schools to ones who've been on Wall Street. We have consultants, bankers and Broadway dancers. We think this new curriculum addresses that.

"In the first year we're deliberately putting students in situations where they don't have enough tools or judgement to get the right answers. Students will be able to calibrate where their knowledge gaps are. Our second and third quarters are what our old course used to look like, but now each course comes with a menu. For instance, with finance some students may be interested in investment, some more in corporate finance."

There is a new course in global management, two exchange programmes (with Bangalore and Beijing) and a rapport-building project. And every first-year MBA will meet senior government officials and business leaders abroad.

At the Yale School of Management the new curriculum is based on the fact that the demands for leaders today are very different to what they were 50 years ago, says Joel Podolny, the dean. "To be effective today, leaders must be able to frame problems and work across organizational boundaries to solve them."

The school has ditched the traditional disciplinary courses - marketing, finance and so on. These, he says "get in the way of management". Instead there are new courses called "organizational perspectives", structured around the many roles a manager must fulfil: innovator, operations engine and so on.

"All are multidisciplinary and the faculty in each routinely draw on material from the others in their teaching," Podolny says. Making trips abroad a formal part of the curriculum was "very intuitive for us", he says, as managers need to work across all sorts of boundaries. Yale's first-round applications are up 46 per cent on last year.

At Harvard, the new dean Jay Light has no intention of changing its famous case-study based approach. The school points to "the perspectives of the more than 300 students (representing 70 countries) who come to HBS from countries outside the US." But there is one significant change - an "immersion programme" between semesters. For the first time this month 60 Harvard students are travelling to China for two weeks with faculty to learn first-hand about the history, culture, and business climate of this emerging economic power.

At Chicago, Dean Snyder says that curriculum change is "creative destruction year in and year out". It is driven by faculty and students, not by top-down instructions from the dean's office, he says. If faculty are not generating courses that are of value, they won't atttract students. But courses have evolved to look at what he calls "special-purpose entities" such as Enron. "Applications are up 15 per cent and the job picture is really good."

At the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth there has been no radical change, says Paul Danos, the dean, but the emphasis is on providing students with more quality time with the faculty. "Every faculty member we have teaches in the MBA programme. We give our students great access to them."

Tuck, he points out, invented the two-year MBA programme 106 years ago. The school has become global and diverse and the faculty too, he says. "The students are from everywhere," he says. "The other big change is how much we do outside the classroom - projects, teamwork." Tuck has a large project in Tanzania where students are helping the local people to build a factory to make drugs. "Their semesters are so full," Danos says. "Much more participative."

'The MBA experience goes way beyond the classroom'

Pank Patel, from London, read economics at Girton College, Cambridge, and spent three and a half years with Accenture's business consulting practise in the UK and Europe before beginning his MBA at Stanford last year.

I chose to study in the US for two main reasons. The three people I knew at business school were all at top US schools. Most of the world's top 30 schools are here and I wanted the opportunity post-MBA to work in the US. Given the stronger brand value and the more extensive networks that US schools have, it made more sense to apply on this side of the pond.

It's also a lot warmer in California - and the cheap dollar helps. The first term at Stanford has certainly been the whirlwind experience I expected, the workload has been intense, to say the least, but the MBA experience goes well beyond the classroom. I have been exposed to a diverse array of clubs, social groups and work opportunities far beyond my prior expectations.

Most of all, I have been blown away by the outstanding calibre of my classmates: they come from all corners of the world and from so many different backgrounds. One term into my MBA experience and I already feel I have made so many great friends for life.