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Duke Fuqua Revamps Its MBA Curriculum To Deal With Increasing Polarization

The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University (Photo by Alex Boerner)

It’s no secret that the U.S., if not the world, seems more polarized than ever before. Partisan acrimony is deeper and more extensive than at any point in recent history. And extreme polarization has become a near defining feature of politics and many facets of everyday life. Now a business school wants to tackle the issue head on.

Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business today (Aug. 26) announced a major revamp of its full-time MBA curriculum, reorganizing what it teaches MBA students around three central themes: Creating common purpose in a world of difference, leading technology-driven transformation, and entrepreneurship for a lifetime.

Starting next fall, these three central ideas will be introduced at the beginning of Fuqua’s two-year MBA program through new courses delivered by cross-disciplinary teams of professors and then will be woven throughout the MBA experience. The changes will add an additional course to Fuqua’s core and reconfigure two existing core requirements—Global Institutions and Environment and Leadership, Ethics and Organization—to reinforce the themes.


The change is among three new innovations at Fuqua as applications to full-time MBA programs continue to tumble. The school also will launch an accelerated one-year MBA for students who already have a master’s degree in management (see Fuqua Launches One-Year MBA For MIM Grads) and has introduced a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) track into its Master of Management Studies, a one-year, pre-experience degree for recent undergraduates. The STEM designation will allow international students to apply for two additional years of Optional Practical Training (OPT) that will allow them to hold a job in the U.S. for as long as three years (see STEM MBA Programs At U.S. Business Schools).

The innovations are meant to keep the school in the forefront of the rapidly changing market for graduate management education. In common with most other elite U.S. business schools, applications to Fuqua’s daytime MBA program fell for the second consecutive year in 2018-2019 by 14.6% to 3,036 from 3,557 (see Apps To Major U.S. MBA Programs Plunge Again). In the past two years, applications are down by 20%.

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding says the changes are designed to keep the school’s offerings relevant.

“There is this real sense of urgency that the world is changing so rapidly that if we want to remain relevant we, too, have to evolve rapidly to make sure we are serving the business community,” says Boulding in an interview with Poets&Quants. “One of my dean colleagues says a dean’s year is now like a dog’s year (seven years) because the pace of change is so dramatic. In the last three years we have seen as much innovation in the business school space as we have seen in the last 21 years. It’s our obligation to look around the corners to see what is going to happen and then be ready for it. We have a great brand and that insulates us to some extent relative to what is happening out there. But we can’t afford one moment of complacency because if we do we will be subject to the same kinds of challenges prevalent in the business school industry.”


Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Boulding says the themes originate from conversations with both students, alumni, recruiters and the faculty and were tested with the school’s board and alumni council. “We believe this needs to be part of the core experience,” he says. “There is a lot of data behind these changes. It is very much based on input from a wide variety of sources. This is where these ideas come from. They aren’t just being made up by an individual. What has always driven us is the desire to remain relevant for the world that we live in and the world that we will live in.”

So far, Boulding says the ideas have been welcomed by the school’s stakeholders. “These themes resonate a lot. It’s hard to argue against these themes. This is a multi-stage process from a point of view of product development which is to start with themes, flesh out what they mean in terms of courses and then with that in place create the infrastructure that connects to those themes to other parts of the curriculum. It is a year-long process to make all that happen. You don’t just wave a wand and say you’ve done all these things. It takes real effort to deeply engage in all of what we do in the full-time program.”

The revamp means updating summer courses and adding a new course in the spring. During the summer, Leadership, Ethics and Organizations (LEO) will include more content on creating common purpose in an increasingly polarized world. In addition, students will take a course that examines the transformational role of technology, as well as a class focused on developing and acting on an entrepreneurial mindset. The school’s faculty is also creating a new course for the Spring Two term on “Capitalism and Common Purpose in a World of Differences.”


The first theme of the new curriculum is certainly topical, give the current divide between conservatives and liberals in the U.S. and other countries. “It’s becoming more difficult to create common purpose in the world,” explains Boulding. “As the world around us becomes more polarized, we think business can bring people together for common purpose. A survey of corporate recruiters says the number one thing employers are looking for is your ability to work with others. So this connects with our historical positioning around Team Fuqua,” he adds in a reference to the school’s long-time focus on building collaborative teams.

“In the old world of business schools, the common purpose was simple: It was to maximize shareholder value. But the business community and the whole idea of capitalism has been under attack from some quarters as not representing the best interests of society. So the question becomes how do we bring people from different backgrounds together to allow business to fulfill its mission. Business can give back to society to create jobs, dignity and opportunity. How can we train the business leaders of tomorrow to do this? We think this is a robust area to explore and to prepare leaders for this world which is so full of difference and has in other areas created conflict rather than what business can do which is to create value out of it.”

The change also reflects a larger commitment to the core curriculum, though Boulding says MBA students will still be able to begin selecting some electives in the first year of the program. “There was some chagrin to hear from students that heard me talk about the role business plays in society and that it can be a force for good but didn’t explicitly see it in the curriculum,” he says. “It was not in our core. So we think it is something that should be elevated as part of the Fuqua experience.”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.