Harvard Faculty Votes ‘Bold’ Changes To MBA Program

by John A. Byrne on

Nitin Nohria became the tenth dean of the Harvard Business School on July 1

Nitin Nohria announces first new changes to Harvard's MBA program

Harvard Business School began notifying newly admitted MBA applicants today (Jan. 23rd) that the school’s faculty voted Jan. 19th in favor of what it called “two important enhancements to the MBA program.” Among other things, the changes will lessen the school’s dependence on case studies as the way to teach business, adding experiential learning, simulations, and field studies to Harvard’s MBA curriculum. These program alternations follow more subtle and unannounced changes in the school’s admissions policies to bring into HBS fewer hard-charging finance types with backgrounds in private equity and hedge funds.

In a letter from Dean Nitin Nohria and Senior Associate Dean Youngme Moon, the school said the changes are the result of discussions among the faculty after receiving input from alumni, recruiters, and current students, among others. The new moves will rolled out in the fall.

The first change will create a new course in the first-year required curriculum called FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development). It will focus on developing substantively meaningful small-group learning experiences throughout the first year that are, in Nohria’s and Moon’s words, “experiential, immersive, and field-based, with the overall goal of advancing the school’s mission to develop leaders who make a difference in the world.

“Like other new courses,” he said, “it will be designed and delivered by a faculty teaching group, and it will consist of three modules: the first will center on leadership, the second on globalization (including a required global immersion experience during the RC January term), and the final will integrate learning across the year.”

The second change enables new flexibility in the elective curriculum by “modularizing the calendar,” allowing faculty and students greater flexibility and creativity in molding their courses and building their schedules, respectively. The school’s two-semester format will morph into four quarters, providing faculty with the ability to create simulations and projects outside the typical 90-minute class that is a full semester long. While details are still being worked out, faculty are discussing the creation of some class sessions that would last twice as long, giving instructors greater flexibility in designing innovative course formats.

These are the first major changes under Dean Nohria who took over as Harvard’s tenth dean in July of last year. The officers of the MBA Student Association at Harvard called the changes “bold, new ideas to increase the value of our MBA education.” But at first blush, they don’t appear to live up to the dean’s earlier promise in an interview with the HBS Alumni Bulletin to pursue “bold, brave things” that will set the course for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years. “I think we have to bring in a period of innovation in which we are willing to do some bold, brave things that will set the course, not just for our school but for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years,” he said in the alumni interview. “This is the moment to do it… We are strong and well positioned. We have the resources. We have the faculty with the energy to go out and do bold things.”

Many other schools, including the University of Virginia’s Darden School, already have modular courses in both the required and elective portions of their MBA programs. And several business schools, most notably the University of Michigan’s Ross School, have experiential learning components in their programs. The changes follow a recent announcement by The Wharton School of major changes in its MBA program that includes an offer of free execution education courses for life. It’s also after numerous business schools, including Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and Yale, have already put in place major changes in their MBA programs.

Nonetheless, this is Harvard–and everyone watches what the number one business school in the world does. The faculty vote also comes months after Dean Nohria has traveled around the world with a standard alumni stump speech announcing what has become known at HBS as the five Is: Innovation, Intellectual Ambition, Internationalization, Inclusion, and Integration (largely with the rest of Harvard university). These two changes reflect at least part of what he has been signaling. So while the changes were widely expected, they caught some by surprise. The Financial Times, for example, published an interview with Nohria on Jan. 24 that makes no mention of the faculty vote approving the changes even though that vote occurred five days earlier.

Research by Harvard Professors David Garvin (right) and Srikant Datar helped to inform the changes to Harvard's MBA program.

Research by Harvard Professors David Garvin (right) and Srikant Datar helped to inform the changes to Harvard's MBA program.

The Harvard changes were informed by research initially commissioned by Nohria’s predecessor, Dean Jay Light, for the 100th anniversary of the school in 2008. Professors David Garvin and Srikant Datar organized a workshop on “The Future of MBA Education.” The event drew on their conversations with faculty as well as interviews with executives and other business school deans and ultimately led to the 2010 publication of a book, “Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads.” Business executives were especially critical in their assessments of MBA graduates (see what they they really think about the degree and the people who have it) and offered many suggestions for improvement. The Harvard profs found that MBA graduates increasingly need to be more effective: they need to have a global mindset, for example, develop leadership skills of self-awareness and self-reflection; and develop an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of business, and the limitations of models and markets. “A lot of the ideas percolated up from that research,” says Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer for Harvard Business School.

Asked if the changes represent “bold, brave things” as promised by Nohria, Kenny described them as “a significant step in that direction. For most of the last 100 years we have been exclusively using a case study pedagogy,” he said. “We’re recognizing that the case method needs to be supplemented with experiential things that allows students to balance knowing with doing. It’s not a radical overhaul of the curriculum which we know some other schools has done, but we think it is a significant enhancement to something we do very well.”

CHANGES ARE MEANT TO BECOME A ‘PLATFORM FOR SIGNIFICANT INNOVATION.’

“We believe both of these enhancements have the potential to become a platform for significant innovation in experiential learning in management education,” said Nohria and Moon in the joint statement. “We also believe these changes to the MBA curriculum will give our students an array of exciting field-based opportunities that will serve as a powerful complement to the case method.”

More details of the program changes came from a memo, obtained by Poets&Quants, released to students by the MBA Student Association which had met with Nohria and Moon. The school allowed the student group to announce the changes to current MBA students. “FIELD will allow students a unique opportunity for experiential, immersive, team-based learning,” it said. “The course will have three areas of focus.  First, it aims to offer RCs the chance to self-discover the “deeper leadership purpose that animates them to obtain a business school education.  It will lay the foundation for everything they do at the school and for a lifetime of leadership after they graduate.

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