October Round: October 5th, 2016
November Round: November 15th, 2016
January Round: January 10th, 2017
March Round: March 15th, 2017
Johnson’s small and close-knit community is a hallmark of its MBA experience. The school boasts a wide-ranging portfolio of degree paths including: A Two-Year MBA in Ithaca; A One-Year MBA in Ithaca; and a new One-Year MBA at Cornell NYC Tech; the Cornell Executive MBA in Metro NYC; and the Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA.
After a two-year review and a 30% plunge in applications to its MBA program in 2014-2015, the school rolled out to the Class of 2016 a new curriculum for its two-year MBA program. It’s the first major update to Cornell’s MBA experience in seven years, and the revamped program places greater emphasis on collaboration, leadership, and analytical skills to better prepare students for a technology-driven global business environment.
Those are a bundle of buzzwords you’ll find on the websites of every modern business school. They’re also words that have come up in recent updates to the MBA programs at both the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Harvard Business School.
Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell, says the changes aren’t expected to impact the welcoming and inclusive culture of the program. Students here have long praised the school for its close-knit and highly collaborative community feel as well as the intelligence and experience classmates bring to the school. The fact that Johnson students are more-or-less isolated from major city life in upstate New York helps to foster a much more collaborative community environment than you might find at other schools. On the other hand, if students have gripes, they tend to be about the somewhat isolating location that can make Johnson a challenge when students have to travel for interviews, conferences or case competitions.
The process to revitalize Cornell’s MBA program–launched three years ago in 2012–is a model of how to connect with one’s market and learn from it. Gaur points out that the study behind the changes included student and alumni focus groups, peer benchmarking of the top 25 MBA programs, and surveys of students, alumni, corporate recruiters, faculty, and staff. More than 50 corporate executives were interviewed. The process reached more than 1,000 students and graduates from the last 12 MBA class years alone.
But it all started with the realization that a fresh approach was in order. “Johnson needed to do a curriculum review because our previous one had been done quite some time ago and the MBA landscape keeps changing quite rapidly,” explains Gaur. “There have been small changes over the years, but no major review since at least seven years. In that time, MBA programs have gotten busier and busier over the years so students need to balance the increased demands on their time.”
During the review process, Cornell found that alumni and recruiters focused more on skills, while students, not surprisingly, placed more emphasis on the logistics of the program and its execution. Students provided insights on how to organize the core and the immersions in the spring semester. “Our core is considered to be extremely intense,” says Gaur. “Students were complaining that the first year was too stressful for them.”
The alums and companies expressed the need for better leadership and communication skills, but also improved quant skills “by doing rather than learning,” says Gaur. “This is a perennial thing but I think we were falling behind and needed to do more effective job. And in terms of critical thinking and analytical skills, companies believed we needed to renew our focus here so students could immediately work better in unstructured environments.”
When the school benchmarked rivals, he adds, “we looked closely at the way their curricula was structured and how much training was being imparted through experiential vs. classroom learning. Students are migrating more toward experiential learning and less toward lectures.”
One rather significant outcome: In the past, roughly 30% of the MBA program came from lectures, with about 30% from case studies, and 20% from team projects. Gaur says the new program will cut lectures to about 20%, and up experiential learning to be equal to case studies at around 30%.
In the end, however, the review identified three priority areas for refinements and advances in MBA learning:
Personal and Leadership Skills: The single biggest changes occurred in leadership and communication. “Leadership,” says Gaur, “could not be imparted by having a single course so we have an innovative way of doing this now. We now have a menu of courses that go on through the fall semester of the second year. We have three courses along with a practicum throughout the first year and fall of the second year. The sequence of having multiple touch points is a big change. It puts the focus on learning things by doing things in practice and makes the business school a microcosm of the real world. In the first year, students are put into core teams and then mentored by second-year MBA students. So second years get the chance to lead and mentor people in a combination of hands-on learning and classroom learning.
Every Johnson student will now move through a targeted curriculum in leadership consisting of the proprietary Johnson 360° Leadership Assessment, coursework, case exercises, teamwork, hands-on leadership experience, coaching, and customized programming. The personalized program begins in the pre-term, with individual assessment and feedback, and continues through the first year, with the Leading Teams Practicum, and second year with Principled Leadership. Leadership instructors teach intensives on leadership topics. These classes are enriched with a menu of Leadership Skills workshops and Leadership Expeditions that span the entire program.
Modeling and Decision Analysis: An enhanced required course, Data Analytics and Modeling, takes students beyond statistics, to data modeling and Big Data techniques and strategies. Modeling is woven into other courses to help students develop the analytical skills needed in all areas of business.
Integrative and Critical Thinking Skills: In their first semester of MBA study, students learn and practice critical thinking skills, with a focus on analyzing, integrating, and synthesizing information for optimal decision making, in the face of challenges, such as incomplete, inaccurate, or ambiguous information.
To respond to student feedback about the core’s demands, Cornell hasn’t necessarily lightened the load but rather altered the emphasis in some core courses. “What has changed is the way we are doing things,” says Gaur. “In the finance core, students were solving problems using intensive tools. Now they are actually learning how to do things in practice, how to build and use the models they will use in practice.
At Cornell, the six courses in the fall semester is completely devoted to the core curriculum. Then, there is a short pre-term course on leading teams. In the spring semester, first-year MBAs take operations management and the newly revamped modeling and decision analysis course class. An immersion course in one of six fields, plus a customized option, ends up taking 60% to 80% of the remaining time. “The goal of immersion is to identify the area students wants to focus on so they can do well on their summer internship,” adds Gaur. “The immersion includes a project component and is equivalent to a capstone course.” There are three immersions in finance, one in marketing, another in operations, and a final one in sustainability. Entrepreneurship is often a customized option.
Besides the leadership course in the fall of the second year, the second year is wide open, allowing students to take a set of electives in a deeper area or explore new topics. Also students often work with local companies and non-profits as non-working members of their boards in the second year. Among the set of new electives being offered are The Art of Innovation: A Design Thinking Immersion and Making Design Thinking Work, and Core Leadership Skills for a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous)World, with retired U.S. Army General George Casey. The course builds on the skills acquired in earlier components of the leadership program, through discussion and interaction with an experienced practitioner and former leader of the United States Army.
There’s also Johnson’s FinTech Trek and Hackathon during which students convene at Cornell Tech in New York City to learn about disruptive technologies facing the financial industry and develop relevant solutions. The experience culminates in a hackathon, in which participants have about 24 hours to develop financial products or services that meet a real business need. Similar classes are planned, each focusing on a different industry.
The changes were rolled out for the cohort of 284 students who entered the the two-year MBA program on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus in the fall of 2014, but not for the accelerated one-year MBA program in Ithaca or in New York City which enrolled its first class of 39 MBA students in May of 2014.
“The next big change will be in improving more of the quantitative elements in the core, including a revamped stats course and finance course, using more statistical tools in quant courses,” says Gaur. “This is still under way. We also are now adding new modules that put MBA students together in the classroom with engineering students. This is still in the works.”
Parsing The Rankings: When Businessweek first launched the MBA rankings game in 1988 with its debut list of the best business schools, Cornell University’s Johnson School earned its best showing ever. It was fifth behind only Northwestern Kellogg, Harvard, Dartmouth Tuck, and Wharton. Back then, the school did exceptionally well in graduate satisfaction. The MBA teaching faculty was singled out as among the best in the world–pretty much on a par with the University of Virginia’s Darden School which is second to none in putting the best teachers in front of the classroom.
Since then, the school has fallen to its more natural level in the second half of the Top 20. Poets&Quants’ composite ranking–which takes into account the five most influential MBA rankings in the world–placed Cornell at 15th in 2014–it’s lowest rank in five years. The best Johnson has done is a rank of 11th in 2013 and 2012.
The four-place drop is a consequence of slightly diminishing performance in the rankings in recent years. Johnson lost ground in 2014 in U.S. News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Financial Times, and The Economist. In 2013, it fell one spot in Forbes’ biennial return-on-investment ranking to ninth place among U.S. MBA programs from 8th two years earlier. Rarely do all rankings for a school go in one direction–up or down. Obviously, this is not a good sign for Cornell or its immediate future given the significantly increased competition from such powerhouse MBA programs at Yale, Duke, Michigan and Virginia.
As is often the case, it’s hard to pinpoint the reasons for the across-the-board decline. Some MBAs worry that the New York Tech campus–a real asset in the long-term–has become something of a distraction to the school and siphoned off some faculty and student talent that would otherwise have stayed in Ithaca. There’s also a relatively new dean, Soumitra Dutta, who started in July of 2012 from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. Johnson placed 24th in The Financial Times before his arrival and has since slid four places to 28 in 2015.
Applications to the school’s MBA program declined by 21% in the 2014-2015 admissions season, one of the more dramatic falls among top schools. That pushed the acceptance rate to a high of 30%, up from only 22.1% a year earlier and significantly above the 16.4% average acceptance rate for the Top 10 U.S. schools. The incoming Class of 2016 had an average GMAT score of 692, below UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Washington University’s Olin School. The most likely reason for Johnson’s rankings stumble is increased competition from schools with greater resources and ambitions.
There’s one small though positive sign amid the fall. This year–2015–U.S. News had Johnson up one spot at least to 16th place from 17th. It’s still four places below the 13th ranking the school achieved from U.S. News in 2012 when Dutta took over the school, but at least it’s now moving in the right direction.
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Estimate of Total Pay Over a 20-Year Career*: $2,537,000
* PayScale 2014 estimate for Poets&Quants