In November of 2010, Philip Powell was in the middle of a class teaching MBA students economics when he felt his buzzing Blackberry vibrate. The text message from one of his associate deans was not good.
Powell, then faculty chair of the full-time MBA program at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, waited until after class to read the short message. It revealed that the school had slipped four places overall in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s biennial ranking of MBA programs to 19th, its weakest showing in eight years.
Even worse, the school sank to 29th in student satisfaction, a tumble of more than 20 places and an unusually low score for a hidden gem of an MBA program known for its collaborative and innovative culture as well as its top-flight teaching faculty. “At least we’re still in the Top 20,” his colleague wryly noted. Rather than absorb the news in his office, Powell was so disturbed he went straight to the library’s coffee shop to sit alone with the consequences.
‘I SPENT THE MONTH SHELL-SHOCKED AND IN MOURNING’
“I was devastated,” recalls Powell, an intense and frenetic academic who had only taken over the full-time MBA program five months earlier. “I take this stuff personally. I thought two things: I was very upset but I had to make sure I didn’t wear this on my sleeve because I could bring everybody down. Secondly, I thought I won’t have a chance for retribution for another two years. This is going to be a long journey. Not only did I take over the MBA program in the dark days of the Great Recession. I now had to turn this thing around. I basically spent the next month shell-shocked and in mourning.”
What made the disapproval especially painful was the fact that the school has long kept its MBA class sizes intentionally small and close-knit, with just 204 full-time students in the latest entering class. The idea is to create an intimate learning experience with highly accessible and surprisingly dedicated faculty. The B-school professors here offer generous office hours, dinner parties and tailgating events. They even come in on the weekends to give pre-exam reviews to classes and to meet one-on-one with students.
“Sometimes, I can’t even get a parking space on Sundays because there are so many faculty and students here,” says Dean Idalene “Idie” Kesner. The total faculty on Kelley’s Bloomington campus—229 at last count—is actually larger than the school’s annual MBA intake. That’s largely because of the school’s more sizable undergraduate business program. But it allows Dean Kesner to pick and choose only the very best teachers to put in front of MBAs.
A SCHOOL WITH A HIGHLY COLLABORATIVE CULTURE AND A REPUTATION AS AN MBA INNOVATOR
Through the years, the Kelley School has fashioned a reputation as a true MBA innovator, from being one of the few programs that give a single grade for the entire core curriculum to having a series of first-year academies that provide experiential learning, consulting projects and coaching to students interested in six core areas that range from capital markets and strategic finance to consulting and supply chain management. Kelley essentially delivers a life-transforming customized MBA experience. Individual and team coaching is so prevalent that each student gets as many as 90 hours of coaching over the course of the two-year program from faculty, staff, and fellow MBA candidates.
So getting such punishing grades from its own graduating students dealt the school a significant blow to its pride—and the high touch, collaborative model of graduate education Kelley had long embraced.
What Powell and his Kelley colleagues did to right the ship is a case study in how a top business school responds to a rankings decline that could wreak havoc with reputation, application volume and corporate recruiter interest. Within two years, the school’s leaders completely turned the situation around. Last year, no full-time MBA program beat Kelley in BusinessWeek’s student satisfaction poll where it skyrocketed to the number one position from 29 in 2010. Overall, the school bounced back to a rank of 15th in the U.S.