Business Schools With The Best MBA Cultures

Students working together at the Yale School of Management

Sharon Oster was in for a rude awakening when she walked into her first Master’s class. Back then, over 30 years ago, she was a highly-touted faculty member at the Yale School of Management — beloved by undergrad and Ph.D. students alike. Quickly enough, the school’s future dean encountered the same rite of passage as many of her colleagues soon would.

“After a few classes,” she recalls, “a small delegation came up to me and said very politely, ‘We think you’re pretty good, but there are a few things that you could do to be better.’ I was completely taken aback…but actually they weren’t wrong. I hadn’t taught MBA students before. There was something both charming and empowered about that.”


If Oster had to boil Yale SOM’s culture down to one word, she would choose “empowered.” It is a defining virtue of the student body, a promise that your voice will be heard and your actions can make a difference. At Yale, students aren’t merely consumers; they are accomplished professionals — partners whose experiences enrich classmates and faculty alike.

In fact, student empowerment has been a vital strand of Yale SOM’s DNA since Bill Donaldson was named the school’s first dean in 1976. “He came from the finance sector and knew little about running a business school,” shares Oster, now the Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the school. “In some ways, that was perhaps helpful because he was open to new ideas, particularly from students. I think that has continued over the years in our culture.”

With this power come certain responsibilities. In the Yale culture, students are expected to be polite and productive, always going to the source to suggest improvements instead of bellyaching like helpless bystanders. This openness, coupled with a cultural bias towards action, has yielded impressive results at the school.

Sharon Oster, Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship


“The students have started a bunch of conferences ranging from capital markets to education and philanthropy here,” Oster adds. “They did that because they thought it needed to be done. I think they are empowered rather than complainers. I think that’s an important cultural attitude because things always go wrong. That happens at any school. The question is, do the students think of themselves as part of the production process or are they somehow customers of a production process that someone else controls? I think the students here are part of the production process with some responsibility for making things better and for having new ideas and innovating in one way or another.”

When it comes to school culture, the Yale SOM is often top of mind among applicants. Under the leadership of Dean Ted Snyder, the program ranks among the most coveted destinations, with 10.6 applicants for every open seat in the 2017 class. That’s still less than another program renowned for its student-centric culture: the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The ratio there was 14.6 applicants for every open slot.

Haas was also the clear favorite in The Economist’s annual student survey when it comes to the quality of fellow classmates and the culture as a whole. The program scored a 4.81 on a five-point scale, one of the highest scores conferred by students in any of the categories (which include the quality of facilities, faculty, career services, and programs as a whole). Surprisingly, Yale SOM finished middle of the pack at 4.59, though just .10 of a point separated the school from the fourth-ranked programs (INSEAD, IESE and Dartmouth). However, the similarities between Yale and Haas are uncanny. Both are programs that define themselves by their inclusive and principle-driven cultures. Even more, they are composed of students who self-select based on their identification with each school’s mission.


While Yale’s culture and expectations are subtly passed down from class-to-class, Haas clearly spells out its expectations for its students. If “empowered” is the hallmark of the Yale MBA candidates, “collaborative” is the best encapsulation for their west coast counterparts according to Peter Johnson, Assistant Dean for the Full-Time MBA Program and Admissions at Haas. This collaborative spirit is best captured in the school’s legendary “Defining Principles,” which act as both measuring stick and compass for the Haas community.

According to Johnson, the defining principles were codified through a joint effort between students, faculty, staff, and alumni. At the start, focus groups were set up to express how the program was different than their peer schools. However, Johnson notes, the community quickly seized on four points that reflected the experience that so many had enjoyed. Rather than being an external marketing exercise, the Defining Principles emerged as a common language that fostered a common understanding and focus across Haas. In other words, they became a unifying force, the glue that enables the community to consciously evaluate their every decision or action through the prism of an agreed-upon framework.


How do the Defining Principles work in the real world? Johnson cites an initiative spearheaded by the student MBA Association (aka student government) two years ago. Taking a page from Yale, Haas students piloted a program to clearly demarcate which classroom behaviors should be modeled by students and faculty alike. The result, not surprisingly, was the Defining Principles brought down to a day-to-day operational level according to Johnson. In fact, Johnson adds, the impact of the Defining Principles extends to every corner of the school’s far-flung operation.


“We altered our scholarship process, so some of our top scholarships are actually given to students who, in the admissions process, reflect these values. Our end-of-year student leadership awards also recognize people who portray these values within these communities as students. There are a lot of ways that different groups have really decided to embody these principles and that has led to a shared understanding of what our culture is all about.”

(The Economist culture ranking is found on page 3)

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