Behind UCLA’s B-School Overhaul

by John A. Byrne on

Anderson School Dean Judy Olian

In the past four years, UCLA’s Anderson School of Business twice hired Deloitte Consulting to study the best practices of several top business schools, interview corporate recruiters of MBAs, and do a deep dive into the competitive landscape of graduate business education.

The outcome of that spadework resulted in a simple but crucial insight: All too often, many first-year students show up on campus unsure of what they want out of the degree. They have yet to set their sights on a specific field of study or industry. And if and when they finally do, corporate recruiters see less of a straight line to their industries and more of a zigzag that leads to questions about commitment and desire.

That primary finding has been the driving force behind Anderson’s sweeping curriculum overhaul announced on Aug. 8th. The changes are part of an effort to more quickly get students to commit to a specific track of study and channel them into a more productive internship, which should, in turn, set them up for the best possible job offers in their chosen field.

Many schools, of course, have “majors” or “concentrations” of study. But Anderson is rearranging its first year curriculum so that MBA candidates can make these choices as early as possible. And as a clever inducement for students to make an early commitment, the school will offer a suite of certificates in as many as a dozen specific areas of study. Each certificate lays out a set menu of courses required for the additional credential.

From the start of the new curriculum this fall, the school will offer certificates in real estate, the management of technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. Subject to university approval, Anderson also hopes to roll out certificates in branding, healthcare, and entertainment. Ultimately, say school officials, they expect to have three or four in finance, at least three in marketing, and one in human resources.

“This structure will create very clear signaling of student preparation and interests by virtue of their selection of tracks, their sequencing of courses and the availability of certificates,” says Judy Olian, who became Anderson’s dean in early 2006 after a stint as dean of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. “Rather than this amorphous MBA, with a bit of this and a bit of that, this provides very clear information to the marketplace.”

It’s a novel approach but it could also wind up discouraging students who are less willing to sign up for a specific subject and who use the MBA degree to explore different career choices. Olian maintains that the changes aren’t meant to be overly restrictive. “We’re not locking them in,” she insists. “We are an educational institution. We are not a prison. So if they make a mistake, they can change. But we’re looking for them to articulate their choice before they get here.”

Andrew Ainslie, senior associate dean of the MBA program, believes that the benefits of the new curriculum will far outweigh the costs. “From the student perspective, this helps MBAs signal their identity to the market,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is say to a student, ‘If you are interested in finance, we are going to make sure you walk out of this institution with the best finance preparation that we can give you.’ We are trying to help students identify who they are in the marketplace.

“In most schools, you’re left to pick and choose and try to put together a set of classes that will help you how to do real estate. We are saying to students, ‘If you want to do real estate, here is the exact set of classes that we feel are best going to prepare you for a career in real estate. Tracks pull everything forward and get students thinking faster about what they want to do. The certificates give them specialized knowledge in a structured way rather than doing it on their own. The earlier students know exactly what they want out of an MBA program, the more likely they are to have a successful outcome.”

Besides the prescribed courses, there also will be what Olian calls an additional “deepening curriculum experience” and a 20-week client project called the applied management research program tailored to a particular certificate. So if you are in sustainability, your field project will most likely be something to do with sustainability. This is going to be tailored to specific niches.” The mandatory research project turns students into consultants for major companies, involving them in a wide range of projects that range from exploring new business opportunities to developing pricing strategies.

The consulting reports from Deloitte, one delivered a year ago and another one three years earlier, informed much of the thinking behind the changes. “Sometimes schools look inward for their curriculum reform and say, ‘This is who we are and here are the characteristics of our students,’” says Olian. “We have a particular culture here in analytics and academics that is essential to our DNA. But what characterizes this reform is it is from the outside in, from major consulting reports and from feedback from our recruiters. We wanted to know what the market wanted from us and that was has shaped this curriculum.”

The first study focused on the structure of Anderson’s careers and employment services. The second study, says Olian, examined the “whole value chain of the MBA educational experience from admissions through recruiter perceptions.” Adds Ainslie: “The studies really showed us where we needed to expend our energy and put our best foot forward. We had great relationships with a lot of recruiters but we really needed that focus to find something that really differentiated ourselves in the recruiters’ minds.”

Among other things, the studies revealed a shortfall in the school’s curriculum on communications. That discovery led to a new communications course in the first quarter along with a series of “leadership introspection experiences” during orientation. Those changes were put through a year ago.

Deloitte also found flaws in how the school interacted with recruiters. “If you look carefully as the U.S. News rankings, it was pretty clear we weren’t doing great on the recruiter side of things,” says Ainslie. “The two big things we could fix there was good leadership in our Career Management Center and the addition of our communications class.”

Anderson recruited Rob Weiler, a 1991 alum who had worked at Goldman Sachs, the Union Bank of Switzerland and Trust Company of the West, as an executive-in-residence in 2007 at its Career Management Center. Three years later, he took over as assistant dean of career services and has since worked to forge better relations with corporate recruiters and get incoming students thinking about careers far earlier than they otherwise would.

U.S. News ranks Anderson 14th in the U.S. with a “recruiter assessment score” of 3.9 on a zero to 5.0 scale with 5 being the best. By comparison, Berkeley’s Haas School, which is tied with Dartmouth’s Tuck School for seventh place and has a recruiter score of 4.1. Far more telling, however, is the school’s slide in the corporate recruiter polls done by BusinessWeek. From 2006 to 2010, Anderson fell to 26th place from a rank of 15 among the recruiters surveyed by BusinessWeek. During that time, the school’s overall rank in the BW survey went to 17 from 12.

The school’s identity has largely evolved around its prime location in Southern California and its strengths in finance. marketing, entrepreneurship, and operations. A vast majority of students who come to UCLA for an MBA fall in love with the place and stay in the area for the rest of their careers. “We are really well known for having a genuine culture of community, interaction, and students working with each other,” adds Ainslie. “That is a wonderful reason to come here but it is not clear how that gives us an advantage in the marketplace.”

Analysis of MBA job market trends by Weiler, for example, showed that there are 9,000 MBA jobs listed in San Francisco and Silicon Valley each year, more job listings than New York and far more than Southern California. Yet, the output of top MBAs from both Stanford and Berkeley is so small that it can’t satisfy demand. “That is a market we are trying to get our students to look at more seriously,” says Ainslie.

Anderson’s new curriculum is on top of these other internal changes that have occurred over the past couple of years. “It has taken a pretty big commitment from our faculty to be able to offer first-year students the flexibility to take marketing or finance in the first quarter and then flip them in the second quarter and also to decide when they want to take strategy in the second or third quarter,” says Ainslie. “Most schools overload students in the first semester. We’re acknowledging that not everybody needs everything. Different students need different things at different times.”

With the new changes, Anderson is trying to find middle ground between the University of Chicago’s Booth School “smorgasbord approach” of allowing students maximum flexibility in designing their MBA program and the Harvard Business School’s lockstep approach in which first-year students take all their classes together in sections of 90 students each.

“We still wanted some structure and a set of classes that students do together,” says Ainslie. “But we wanted to offer the flexibility of taking classes early in such courses as finance, marketing and strategy that tend to lead to career paths. That change will get them off to a start much faster. It will accelerate their internship preparation and also they can start taking appropriate electives much earlier—in their second quarter to prepare for the internship itself.”

Will all these changes actually lead to more focused MBA graduates? Anderson certainly hopes so. “I hear from a lot of employers all the time that what they are looking for is early value from the MBAs they employ,” says Olian. “They don’t want to go through a re-training exercise. They want to have people they can count on from early on to be real contributors.”

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