The Best MBA Faculty: Yale SOM & Virginia Darden

Professor Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak meeting with a Yale SOM student after class

On the surface, the mission of the Yale School of Management is simple: “To educate leaders for business and society. Just break down the three stakeholders in this statement: leaders, business, and society. Turns out, these seven words comprise the most audacious and all-encompassing mission in education. Here, students explore more than the complex, conflicting, and connected strands of global trade. Instead, they are dissecting society as a whole.

“If you want to be an effective business leader, you cannot think of your business in isolation from the society in which it operates,” says Edieal “Edi” Pinker, Deputy Dean and BearingPoint Professor of Operations Research in an interview with Poets&Quants. “If you want to be a leader in society – a leader in the public sector – you must understand the business world. These things interact; they are co-dependent. How they interact is important. It is the complexity of life today, especially with the more global interactions where you are working across multiple societies.”


Yale SOM’s Edi Pinker

This mission also guides the classroom, where faculty loop these threads into every lecture, discussion, and project. That, coupled with the talent of faculty and students, elevates learning beyond simply mastering steps to reduce turnover or maximize profit.

“We’re not doing cases on Acme widget’s demand curve, figuring out what your price would be,” emphasizes Pinker. “You can get that in an online course – there’s some arithmetic to master but that’s trivial. The complexity and value-add come from asking what isn’t in the NPV calculation. What’s not in there – what can’t be quantified – that’s very important to being successful. Where are the societal or environmental impacts? What about worker safety? It is having conversations that illustrate those issues. This is where we bring something that you won’t get in the generic MBA.”

The classroom experience is equally revered at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Celebrated for teaching excellence and case methodology, Darden really comes down to “ideas,” says

Sankaran Venkataraman, the school’s senior associate dean for faculty and research and the MasterCard Professor of Business Administration. In his experience, faculty members can’t become a great teacher if they don’t care about ideas – or transmitting them to the best audiences.


“What Darden allows the scholar to be is a full and well-rounded scholar. Darden values ideas and the production of ideas. It values taking those ideas to young people who will be the future leaders of the world. It values taking those ideas and attempting to move the needle on practice. It provides a system and a support system that allows scholars to express themselves in a complete and energizing way.”

In some programs, Venkataraman has witnessed teaching and research at odds. Each vies for faculty time, with students footing the bill – but research leading to tenure. At Darden, he notes, each side informs the other, ultimately making faculty better at both.

“Research benefits from teaching and practice. You’re able to frame ideas and ask questions in your area of expertise that are more nuanced. The information is not just from your literature but the wider world. You inform practice with the benefit of your discipline and your field.”

Class at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business held outdoors. File photo

How well does Darden deliver on this promise? Extremely well, say students. Each year, The Economist conducts a survey with current MBA students and recent graduates, covering several measures including faculty quality. From 2015-2017, Virginia Darden garnered the highest marks in this area. On a scale of 1-to-5 (with 5 being the highest mark), Darden faculty notched a 4.76 average in 2018, just a shade under its 4.83 high-water mark. However, this latest survey also represents a changing of the guard, as Yale SOM grabbed the top spot – with a perfect 5.0 score, no less.


Sure enough, faculty quality tends to remain a constant in Economist student survey. Chicago Booth and Carnegie Mellon Tepper, whose teaching methods were profiled by P&Q in 2017, finished a shade below Darden at 4.74 and 4.72, respectively. Harvard Business School and IESE, both strong adherents to the case method like Darden, ranked 5th and 8th in 2018. Washington Foster, North Carolina Kenan-Flagler, and Northwestern Kellogg notched Top 10 marks as well.

Not surprisingly, Yale SOM was the latest survey’s big winner, with its student satisfaction score jumping by .58 of a point. Washington Foster made impressive progress too, experiencing a .23 of a point bump. Overall, survey respondents were less impressed with their MBA faculty than in previous years – a trend shared with the school culture category. Just three schools enjoyed higher faculty scores over the past four surveys. By contrast, IE Business School (-.54), Duke Fuqua (-.25), NYU Stern (-.21), and UCLA Anderson (-.20) have endured notable drops.

What innovations has Yale SOM faculty implemented to make the classroom experience so useful to MBAs? Edi Pinker concedes that the program is a bit “old school” in its approach. Namely, the SOM deploys research faculty, whose backgrounds lend themselves to the most fundamental skill in an MBA’s toolkit: critical thinking. In other words, the classes are fueled by discussions and projects designed to deepen this skill.


Yale SOM students gathered after class

Of course, survey 10 faculty and you’re bound to get 10 different definitions of critical thinking. For Pinker, critical thinking starts with being evidence-based. When students make an assertion or stake out a position, Pinker asserts, they must supply data or fact-based justifications to back it up. That same process is expected whether someone is selling an idea to the c-suite or submitting a paper to an academic journal. In fact, Pinker characterizes the majority of SOM faculty as social scientists. As a result, the program is heavily geared towards placing students in another’s shoes. That way, they can better view the world from another’s perspective – and develop arguments or solutions that integrate it.

“If you want to successfully debate an issue, it helps to think like chess: “What move is your opponent going to make,” Pinker posits. “That helps you think what move you should make. Our core curriculum is organized around perspectives. We have a core course called “Employee,” where we look at the world from the employee standpoint. We do the same for the Investor, Innovator, and Customer – these courses look at different perspectives from the organization, marketplace, or competitive standpoints…So it’s not enough to just say what your position is and list your reasons for it. You also have to think, ‘How will others react to my position?’ If they see it very differently than you do, your arguments and support may not be relevant. That kind of way of looking at problems and scenarios is cooked into our curriculum.”

This process is orchestrated by the Yale SOM faculty – the true differentiators. Pinker observes that students are “looking for learning something [they] couldn’t learn somewhere else” when they leave the job market and pay tuition. In fact, a prospective student recently posed the most foundational of questions to Pinker: “What is unique about this class versus what it would be like at another university?” His answer encapsulates Yale SOM’s distinct advantage.

“I am the unique element because I am bringing a unique perspective based on the research that I do and my interests and expertise. Every one of my colleagues is unique for that reason…When you do research, that’s how you bring a unique element to the classroom as opposed to repeating something that’s in the book. The research is bringing in both critical thinking and the unique perspectives that represent where the forefront of knowledge is.”

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