Cornell Revamps Its Two-Year MBA Program

Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University

Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University

Despite all the silly criticism about how the MBA needs to change and adapt to a new and different world, every business school is continuing to evolve what is taught in an MBA program and how it is taught. Perhaps more than any other professional school, business schools have consistently shown that they are far more responsive to marketplace needs than the rest of academia.

Sometimes, these changes are evolutionary, a handful of new electives in the course catalog, a few case studies that get switched out or updated in a semester or year. Sometimes, they are far reaching, the result of feedback from all major stakeholders: students, alumni, faculty, and corporate recruiters. The latest major update comes from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

After a two-year review, the school has 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. So what has Cornell done to give real meaning to them? Poets&Quants recently interviewed Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell, to find out.

Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell

Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell

With something of a baby face, Gaur looks more like an undergraduate student than a professor of operations management. Before joining Johnson in 2007, he was an assistant professor at NYU Stern School of Business during 2001-07 and a visiting associate professor at Harvard Business School during 2007-08. Gaur teaches the MBA core course in operations management and an MBA elective course in retail operations. He became associate dean for MBA programs last July, overseeing an MBA experience that

is currently ranked 15th best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants, with the school’s highest ranking—ninth—from Forbes magazine and its lower placing 17th by U.S. News & World Report.

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–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.”

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