Thunderbird Moves To A One-Year MBA


The Thunderbird campus in Arizona

At a retreat just after Labor Day last year, a faculty committee at the Thunderbird School of Global Management began an unusual exercise: the group examined its MBA program with the perspective of a company hiring its students.

Led by President Larry Penley, the group used feedback from corporate recruiters who hired Thunderbird graduates along with employer survey data gathered by the Graduate Management Admission Council to challenge the faculty to come up with a revised MBA format that would be more relevant to employers and ultimately the school’s students.


The results of that retreat, made public March 8th, represent the most dramatic change at Thunderbird since 2001 when the school stopped granting a master’s of international management and instead went to the MBA degree. The school, long ranked as the best international MBA program by U.S. News & World Report, will now offer a core MBA curriculum that can be completed in 12 months and will cost about $20,000 less than its current 20-month program.

In part, the school’s decision seems inevitable in light of dramatic falls in enrollment in its more traditional MBA program. The school’s full-time MBA enrollment has been steadily declining for years, falling to just 380 from more than 1,500 in 1990. Last fall, its entering class totaled only 140 students. The placement stats for last year’s graduating class, meantime, were among the worst reported by any business school in the U.S. Some 76.1% of Thunderbird’s Class of 2012 were without jobs at commencement.

“The employer data showed that companies wanted much better honed analytical skills from MBA hires, and they wanted better decision-making skills,” says Penley, who became interim chief academic officer and provost in April of 2012 and president in November of last year. “They wanted students to have the capacity to really deal with the data we have these days and this became absolutely clear from our own employers. Thunderbird is not a school that focuses on the quantitative side. but we have the capacity to build models to analyze data and improve our decision making capability. So we began to think about how we could piece this together in a way that would make some sense.”


The analysis led the faculty to an array of shorter and more tightly integrated courses that would allow students to examine business issues from multiple perspectives. New courses have been added to the curriculum, placing greater emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills. Core disciplines are taught early in the program to ensure students are prepared for their job search. In addition, personal and professional development activities are built into every module.

The school also will abandon a more traditional semester-based structure in favor of a half dozen six-week modules spread across three trimesters. Students take three courses in each module, including two that are tightly aligned with each other.


“It’s an attempt to get students and faculty to focus on a limited number of issues,” says Penley. “When you have five or more courses at once, students may well read this case and might not read another. The idea is to create a tighter student-teacher relationship over a shorter time period so there would be more focus on an environment that creates better learning.”

In the first trimester, for example, Thunderbird will start with finance and strategy as two three-week courses that are linked together with common case studies and occasional team teaching. “We call them cross enterprise courses and what we are doing with them is trying to create that managerial perspective that is so essential,” says Penley. Accounting is the third course, lasting six weeks long

Arguably the most dramatic decision was to squeeze the new approach into a one-year program that would still include a multi-week global excursion–a central part of the Thunderbird curriculum–in Asia, Europe or Latin America and the long-standing requirement to graduate with fluency in a second language.

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