On March 20th of this year, Fisher College of Business Dean Anil K. Makhija marched into a conference room filled with 16 members of his faculty and staff to deliver a challenge. Makhija urged the group to pull out a blank sheet of paper and reinvent the school’s full-time MBA curriculum.
“I am not here to ask you to tweak the old program,” he said. “I want you to blow it up. The dean said to blow it up. Don’t worry about the politics and don’t worry about the resources. I am asking you to design the ideal program, the shining city on the hill.”
Unleashed to think boldly about what they could do, the committee members have taken their dean to heart. They’ve floated a number of novel ideas and have deeply engaged the local business community, consulting with corporate recruiters critical to the school. While they continue to debate both the outlines and specific features of a redesign, many of the ideas are quite radical, especially for a fairly traditional business school in a mainstream public university such as Ohio State. The group expects to bring the proposed curriculum before the faculty for a vote by year end or early spring.
A TRIO OF COACHES, AN EMPHASIS ON PROBLEM SOLVING & AN IMMERSION LAB WITH WORK ON CLIENT SITES
A defining feature of the proposed redesign is that every admitted student would be assigned three coaches and mentors even before he or she steps on campus: a career coach, an academic advisor, and a corporate mentor, all of whom would work together on behalf of each student for their entire two-year journey, from admission until graduation. The MBA program would earlier for a lengthy pre-term session with some core courses. The reshuffling of classes and the early start allows for spring electives to better prepare students to impress in their summer internships.
Then, there is the immersion lab, a new twist on experiential learning in the spring of the first year of the MBA program. For eight straight weeks, MBA students would meet every Friday to help them integrate the discipline-based learning during the week and prep them for a major project with a client organization. They would then spend a full, uninterrupted month on their assignments on the site of the clients, before coming back to campus for a two-week reflection on their experience.
Before going off for a summer internship, students could move onto an all-expenses paid three-week global consulting project with another organization. Those global experiential projects, already in their fifth year, have brought students to Hong Kong, Singapore, India, China, Dubai, the United Kingdom, and Germany. And then in the second year, students may be required to do a project with a non-profit organization.
‘I DON’T WANT FISHER TO BE A VICTIM BUT RATHER A WINNER’
The decision to rethink the MBA experience at Fisher occurs at a time when an increasing number of deans are considering shutting down their full-time, two-year programs. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business this year announced it is getting out of the two-year MBA market, following decisions by Wake Forest University, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Virginia Tech, and Simmons College to walk from the residential MBA market (see Is Tippie The MBA’s Tipping Point?)
“It makes you think what is going on in this sector,” says Makhija. Has the product kept in touch with all the change in the business market? This is an industry ready for disruption. There is going to be a shakeout. I don’t want Fisher to be a victim but rather a winner.”
At Fisher, where the MBA program is ranked just outside the Top 25 by U.S. News at 27th, the annual intake for the full-time MBA is about 90 students a year. Many students choose Fisher for the intimacy of the program, the personalized attention they get here, and the fact that students not only get to know each other well, but as one second-year MBA points out, “we know each other’s dogs.” The latest entering class saw an 11-percentage drop in international students to 25% from 36% a year earlier, the result of a decline in quality global applicants in the aftermath of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Women make up 32% of the class.
‘WE WANT ATHLETES WHO ARE POLISHED AND SOPHISTICATED’
While there had been tweaks to the program over the years, the faculty hadn’t done a complete refresh of the MBA experience for so long that no one can even remember the last time it had been done. “If we are going to stay in the MBA game, we needed to innovate,” explains Walter Zinn, associate dean of graduate programs. “The dean said to blow it up, design a new MBA from scratch, and that is what we have been doing.”
After the March 20th gathering in the dean’s conference room, the group went to work. The school hired one market research firm to get feedback from the recruiters at 280 companies across the country. It hired another firm to tap into its alumni base. Committee members also held focus groups with faculty, staff and current students. The group then studied 30 rival MBA programs, ranging from such public B-schools as UNC’s Kenan Flager and Texas’ McCombs to such elite players as MIT Sloan and Cornell Johnson, particularly looking at their experiential programs.
The big surprise? After decades of work on soft skills, the company feedback was nearly unanimous that it just wasn’t enough. “It was astounding that a number of companies still thought we needed to do more work on active listening, problem solving, persuasion, communication, working on teams,” says Shashi Matta, faculty director of MBA programs at Fisher. “They told us we want MBAs who are internship ready. We want athletes who are polished and sophisticated who can be leaders in their functional fields. We really want people who can play well with others and who are active listeners. We heard the same things over and over again. We were surprised by the emphasis placed on these traits.”
‘WE HAVE TO GET PEOPLE TO SAY NO TO THINGS’
The school’s alumni survey largely reaffirmed the findings from the recruiter surveys. “Soft skills turned out to be important as well, as a layer, building on functional expertise. Our number one strength was thought to be the intimate size of the program and the personalized attention students receive,” adds Matta. “But they also thought we needed to put more emphasis on soft skills and problem solving.”
Even so, the committee faced the inevitable pressure of considering more novel changes that might attract attention vs. pragmatic ideas that were more in sync with the school’s values. The hardest part about hammering out the redesign? “It’s getting people to acknowledge that we have to say ‘no’ to things,” says Jay Dial, a clinical professor of management and human resources on the redesign committee.. “We can’t be all things to all people. Our biggest challenge is that we have folks who are all achievers. They are not hardwired to do less.” Agrees Darren Roulstone, an accounting professor, “We’ve had a blank check so it’s easy to just say, ‘Yes, this is great.'”
And while there are clear paths forward for how the new curriculum is likely to emerge, there is still healthy debate. “We haven’t fully figured it out yet,” concedes Dial. ” It’s not just another project. It’s a shift from a deductive learning model to an inductive model of learning where it is a problem in search of a solution. It requires a different way for the faculty to approach it.”