Ross Dean: ‘Just Give The Content Away’

Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

It’s a classic business school case study dilemma.

An organization creates something new, enjoys first mover advantage, and then everyone else begins to copy the idea. The challenge: Even though the idea remains a valuable differentiating attribute, the organization has lost some competitive advantage because pretty much every rival has done some form of the once-innovative idea.

Netflix? No. This one involves a business school itself: the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. This year marks the 25th anniversary of its experiential learning program known by the rather unsexy acronym MAP, which stands for multidiscipolinary action projects. When launched a quarter of a century ago first as an experiment, then an elective, and finally a mandatory part of the core MBA experience, it was truly innovative.


The overriding goal of MAP is to learn by doing. Ross began organizing MBAs into teams of four to six students and then assigned them to a real project in a sponsoring corporation. MBAs now spend seven weeks during the spring semester of their first year immersed in MAP projects. Since 1992, some 10,438 full-time MBA candidates at Ross have completed 2,010 projects in 92 different countries for 1,052 sponsors, including Amazon, Facebook, Ford, GM, PepsiCo, and Make-A-Wish.

But over all those years, there’s hardly a business school left that hasn’t added significant experiential learning to the MBA experience. Even Harvard Business School, the bastion of case study learning, added required active learning projects a few years ago. Some schools make it so central to their MBA programs that you can’t graduate with the degree unless you’ve done as many as three consulting projects in two years.

It’s an issue that has been put among the top leadership priorities at Ross by Dean Scott DeRue, who became the youngest dean at the school in July of this year. In an interview with Poets&Quants in San Francisco, where DeRue was making the rounds to meet with alumni, the dean spoke enthusiastically about his new role at the school where he had been a popular management professor for nine years.


“The last 100 days have been the most energy giving of my life,” he says. “I’m engaging with alumni who are passionate about the school. They want us to be great, and they want us to have a positive impact on society.”

One of the ways he hopes to deliver is on the experiential learning that has become a hallmark of the school. Several business school deans have used the metaphor of the med school experience which requires every student to do a residency to graduate. But most experiential learning is done in a single course that can last no longer than a semester and involve relatively minor challenges in a single function or discipline of a company.

DeRue is thinking of ways to change that. “What people are doing is different riffs on MAP and some of the other experiential things we do. We have six student-run investment funds, including one of the few commercial real estate funds. But just because we have that many or more money committed to them doesn’t matter” in terms of differentiation, he says.


Instead, a bolder bet on the active learning seems likely. “Think about Cornell’s Hotel School,” he says. “Students learn how to run a hotel by running one in real time. The same is true of medical school students who work in a residency. You can imagine a world where we build a business like Cornell built a hotel.

“We have a legacy and a strength of action learning, but the question is how do we go much more experiential and much more global,” adds DeRue. “Imagine a world where we close the gap between doing business and learning business, a world where students can actually run businesses.”

DeRue is purposely vague on details, though he says the school is in discussions with several companies about running a few “experiments” that would deepen and make more fundamental experiential learning in the program. Rather than work in a minor project that could be fairly marginal to an organization, it’s possible that Ross could send in an army of MBA students acting as consultants to help a company generate a true breakthrough of greater significance.


DeRue merely smiles when asked if Ross could assist Ford Motor, the longest-running sponsor of the MAP program, in its efforts to develop, make and market autonomous vehicles.

“MAP started as an experiment, then became an elective and (former Dean) Bob (Dolan) got it in the core. It has since been extended across every degree program. So whatever we do will cut across all our programs. We’ll run experiments with companies over the next year and go from there. At this point, I seriously doubt that we will blow up the curriculum.”

Among his top four priorities, however, he lists differentiating the student experience first No. 1. Asked about the resistance to major change at many schools, DeRue says with confidence, “I didn’t get voted to this role to keep the status quo over the next decade. We will have lively debates. I redefined our faculty meeting structure to have substantial conversations about the future of business education.”

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