How A Small B-School Is Changing, And Thriving, With The Times

Big changes are underway at the University of Miami Business School. MBS photo

At a time when many business schools are struggling to attract new students, one relatively small school has had a stellar year. The University of Miami Business School experienced a 12% growth in enrollment, about double that of the industry average, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. The reversal comes after years of dwindling interest in the program, and credit goes to a makeover led by new leadership in Dean John Quelch, who joined Miami from the Harvard Business School in July 2017, and Vice Dean Patricia Abril.

How much is changing at Miami? They’ve even changed their name, streamlining the clunky “School of Business Administration at the University of Miami” to “Miami Business School,” or MBS for short.

Beyond the cosmetic, MBS’ new look extends to its curriculum, which offers a range of course options in addition to, or instead of, a traditional two-year MBA. These highly focused one-year courses include leadership, sustainability, taxation, and analytics. The school also offers special two- to eight-hour workshops in cutting-edge topics — for example, Digital Disruption for Executives. This fall, the school will launch its Master of Science in Sustainable Business that will “provide students and their employers with integrated training in sustainable management methods across all business disciplines,” according to Economics Professor David Kelly. Currently, at MBS there are about 2,400 undergrads and, in various degree programs, 900 graduate students.

Poets&Quants spoke with the hands-on manager of Miami’s makeover, Patricia Abril. Raised in Miami by Cuban immigrants, Abril got her undergraduate degree from Duke in 1996 before graduating Harvard Law four years later with a JD. An expert in intellectual property and privacy, she has taught numerous classes at Miami and played a key role in assembling a suite of business programs. Abril became vice dean in 2017.

How and why are you changing the business school? 

Patricia Abril. LinkedIn

Patricia Abril: At a conference for GMAC, the topic was falling enrollments. Generally some of the reasons cited were high economic growth, so people have job security and don’t need professional schools. Another is competition: there are a lot of high-quality business schools and online programs. 

It’s not a secret that the market is demanding programs that are more focused and shorter. So it makes sense to offer 10-month specialized courses, some online, some a hybrid. And these programs are cheaper than a two-year MBA.

Last year, Lawrence Summers came to visit and a student asked: “What do I need for the future?” Summers said: “Become an expert in something.” 

Here, you spend a year studying the experts in a field. In an uncertain job environment, obtaining specialized skills that can’t be replaced by a robot is job security. We have seven specialized courses — finance, business analytics, international business, tax, accounting, health administration, and sustainable business.

What are the results so far?

Patricia Abril: We grew 12% last year. We’re on a positive trajectory in terms of enrollees, but last year was exceptional.

Are students still interested in getting two-year MBAs?

Patricia Abril: What we’re seeing is that many students come for a specialized program and stay for the MBA; ten months is not that long. Also, Miami is not the worst place to be. If they can figure out a way to stay, they often will. 

The MBA takes two years, but we also offer an accelerated MBA, a 35-credit program that lasts seven months. It’s very intense. The students attracted to that don’t want to waste any time.

Which specialty programs are particularly popular and why?

Patricia Abril: Business analytics is in such high demand, we had to get very selective because we don’t have enough space for all of the students. Last year, 98% of the analytics class got jobs by graduation. Data like that is great advertising.

The markets have a huge need for analytics, to understand big data in the day of supercomputing. They need to know how to handle, interpret, and manage banks and banks of data. How do I understand what it means for my business, and how do I make it into something actionable? This requires a new way of thinking. The program is a combination of statistics, computer modeling, and business strategies. We have a practicum where a professor works with students and huge, well-known companies.

Climate change is a huge topic that affects businesses, and most of the biggest companies are aware of this. Many schools are trying to add sustainability as a graduate course. What is MBS doing?  

Patricia Abril: We are especially excited about launching a Master of Science in Sustainable Business this year. How business addresses climate change proactively is very relevant to our daily lives, especially here in Miami, because the sea level is rising. 

It usually takes two years for final program approval, but the faculty senate said to go ahead with a soft launch in August. Despite not having a full launch and no marketing, the phones are ringing off the hook. All over the world, people are interested in this and are really reaching out. And sustainability is a program that speaks to what millennials want from their careers: to do well and do good. 

Sustainability is a new core function of business and the trend will continue. It’s also an interdisciplinary program. Students will work with business law, architecture, engineering, and marine and atmospheric science. We’re creating 11 new courses from scratch, which can also be electives for MBA students. The courses include Accounting for Sustainability, Leadership for Sustainable Organizations, Supply Chain Management, Risk Management, Impact Investing, and The Microeconomics of Sustainability.

Local, national, and international companies contribute to the curriculum development and sit on an advisory board. They will also offer students a capstone course in October, in which a student will work with a global firm to create an audit solve a problem.

What about class size and team spirit? You said analytics was overflowing. What is a desirable size for a specialized program?

Patricia Abril: For example, with sustainability, we’re keeping the first class small to create a group that’s really bonded and focused. But we have a healthy pipeline of eager students — even before we’ve advertised the program.

We don’t have a growth goal. We hope that sustainability just becomes part of our culture. I do expect a cohort small enough so students can get to know each other — about 50 students. When you’re running an academic program, it’s like a second home for students. We want to create an environment where they can succeed. We’re hugely inclusive — our total incoming class has people from 34 countries. 

Finance is another specialty. Students get a full foundation in finance, which is only about 10 credits out of the 56 that go into a full MBA program. This finance program goes deeper, into fintech, behavioral finance, and sustainable finance. Typically, these students want to go to Wall Street. 

Rising sea levels notwithstanding, how is Miami positioned as a place to find work?

Patricia Abril: It is very dynamic. The Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area recently became number one for startup activity, rivaling Route 128 and Silicon Valley. In terms of innovation and moving fast, right now I would put this school at the top. People focus on the numbers but they’re just a proxy for a good, successful student environment. 


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