It has been seven years since Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business launched a major overhaul of its MBA curriculum. The guinea-pig students who first experienced the changes were supposed to find themselves in a deeper, more engaging intellectual experience, more customized, more global and with increased emphasis on leadership and communication development.
That new educational model helped to sweep Garth Saloner, then a professor who led a 11-person task force that recommended the changes, into the job as Stanford dean. “These new ideas do not tweak at the margins; they aim to create a new, more global, and more engaging experience for students,” said Saloner at the time. “To be sure, the fundamentals—finance, accounting, operations, marketing and strategy, organizational behavior, and economics—are still there. But the plan capitalizes on the school’s strategic choice to remain small, and it makes students think about what is necessary to good management from the first week they arrive here.”
Even Jeffrey Pfeffer, a highly outspoken critic of management education, was optimistic about the changes, calling the MBA revision “the most important thing that has happened at Stanford in my 27 years here. The concept is a complete restructuring of the educational process. This makes students more responsible for their education and potentially engages them more profoundly and more deeply.”
SOME OF THE CHANGES WORKED WELL — OTHERS LESS SO
With the first day of classes in the new school year to start this Monday, Sept. 22, it’s a good time to look back at how those changes took: What worked and what didn’t? What lessons did Stanford learn in implementing the new curriculum? How has it enriched the MBA experience for Stanford’s students? And, perhaps most importantly, was Stanford able to do a collective lobotomy on a new generation of MBAs, many of whom viewed graduate school as a combination two-year job search and a time to let loose after putting their noses to the grindstone during their college years.
In fact, the most significant change was implemented after a somewhat surprising discovery: Most Stanford students believed their undergraduate college experience to be more intellectually challenging than their MBA study. That was largely because students enter an MBA program with vastly different undergraduate and work backgrounds. Some are well-versed in finance and accounting. For others, the only exposure to numbers may have occurred when they began to prep for the GMAT.
Reflecting on what has since occurred, Pfeffer now says that “the intent was wonderful and very much needed. The question is: how much ‘culture change’ can a business school administration accomplish if and to the extent such a change is inconsistent with general trends in the student population?”
A SURPRISINGLY LARGE NUMBER OF STANFORD MBAS ARE OPTING OUT OF THE BASICS
The answer: You can accomplish some but not all of your objectives. What Saloner tried to do was change the sense of the first year being “cod liver oil” and the second being “chocolate cake.” The new curriculum design was partly meant to show students why they needed to learn some basic knowledge and skills.
Seven years later, Stanford at least succeeded in putting more intellectual challenge and rigor in the core curriculum. Rather than assign every student to the same basic courses, the school began offering advanced options right off the bat–seven core courses taught at three different levels, basic, accelerated, and advanced, and three more courses offered at two levels of difficulty. The core offerings vary by pace, depth, and assumed knowledge in the hopes of keeping students challenged regardless of their undergraduate major or their past work experience.
Madhav Rajan, senior associate dean for academic affairs who runs the MBA program, believes this change has made a significant difference. “The different levels of the foundation classes are the single best feature of the new curriculum,” he says. “Students who have had a background in finance can take an advanced applications class. Those have been spectacularly successful. Advanced courses are oversubscribed and we have had to talk some people out of them.”
Rajan, who had been on the curriculum task force, says that 51.6% of Stanford’s students still take the base-level courses in Financial Accounting, Managerial Accounting, Microeconomics, Managerial Finance, Information Management, and Data & Decisions, Modeling). But 23.5% are taking accelerated levels of these core requirements, and another 24.9% are opting for the ever higher advanced-level versions of the courses. For Corporate Finance, Operations, and Marketing, the three courses with two-levels of classes, some 56.5% of the students are signing up for the base class, while 43.5% are taking the more weighty versions.