10 Business Schools To Watch In 2024

Darden’s newly-opened Forum Hotel

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

They won’t say it. Most people feel tired, disrespected, and overwhelmed. Maybe a little afraid too. To win them over, you make the feel welcome, valued, special – pampered even. You treat them to the good life and give them a moment’s peace.

You could say the Forum Hotel is an extension of the Darden School spirit: warm, cosmopolitan, energizing, . Architecturally, it reflects the Jeffersonian aesthetic common to the University of Virginia: Classic white columns, red clay brick, arched windows, and a gigantic lawn. Inside, you’ll find spacious walkways and cozy rooms, a quiet place to gather with loved ones or unwind after a productive day. It feels cultured and relaxed – a place you want to stick around and savor.

Clearly, Darden has hospitality down pat after opening the Forum Hotel last year. Think five stories and 195,000 square feet. 198 guest rooms and 9 suites that can accommodate 600 guests. Combined with the renovated C. Ray Smith Alumni Hall – 48,000 square feet itself – Darden socked $130 million dollars into the venture. And man, does it look like money well spent! That’s because the amenities are the stuff of luxury.

Picture a ballroom, a wine cellar, a fitness center, and a library. It also comes with a 6-acre arboretum with 5,500 trees, not to mention a botanical garden and walking path. Want to unwind? Visit The Good Sport for craft beers from all over Charlottesville. Fine dining? Try the Birch & Bloom for everything from a Seafood Tower to a Filet Mignon. If you get there between 5-6 p.m., you can enjoy complimentary Belgian beer too.

If anything, the Forum Hotel sends a message. For one, it says the Darden doors are open to the Charlottesville community. Overlooking the Darden grounds, the location is a natural spot for the Darden community to gather. More than that, the hotel personifies how Darden is all about the people and the experience.

“In this building, they will see a lot of potential,” says Yael Grushka-Cockayne, senior associate dean for professional degree programs, in a 2023 interview. “Before we would put prospective candidates up in random places around town or in the Darden Inn. You get to know people when you break bread with them and this place invites that kind of interaction and is a world-class experience with small town hospitality.”

Yes, it was good to be Darden again in 2023. Their MBA graduates enjoyed record starting pay last year. The school also topped its $400 million goal two years early in its Powered By Purpose campaign. You can thank David and Kathleen LaCross for some of that. After all, they gave an estimated $56 million dollars to Darden in the second part of their $100 million dollar gift. According to the school, past LaCross gifts have supported the launch of Darden Artificial Intelligence Initiative, with the latest money being funneled towards the Institute for Business in Society, the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics, and the Collaboratory for Applied Data Science in Business.

“I recognized well before graduation that I owed a tremendous debt to Darden for its effective use of the case method, an incredibly special faculty that really knew how to get the most out of a class and my classmates,” David LaCross stated in 2022. “I hoped from the outset that I would be in a position to give something back some day.”

UVA Darden cherry blossoms

You’ll find plenty of Darden MBAs following in his footsteps who feel the same way. That’s particularly true of current students and recent alumni who were surveyed by The Princeton Review last year. The Darden School ranked in the Top 10 across more schools than any other MBA program. That included finishing 2nd in three categories: Classroom Experience, Campus Environment, and Career Prospects. Darden also ranked 4th for Best Professors and Top 10 for Family Friendliness, Least Competitive Classmates, and Resources For Women. True to Darden’s reputation for stellar academics, the school’s programming finished among the world’s ten-best in four disciplines: Management (3rd), Consulting (4th), Finance (7th), and Marketing (8th).

The Princeton Review wasn’t the only ranking where Darden stood out. In December’s Poets&Quants ranking, Darden climbed six spots to 8th. With Bloomberg Businessweek, the school tied with Dartmouth Tuck for 3rd, its highest ranking ever, thanks to high scores in the Compensation and Learning categories. Darden even scored a #1 ranking –  in its Carbon Footprint from The Financial Times. Thirty years ago, Darden was among the first MBA programs to teach sustainability. Practicing what it preached, Darden also became one of programs to achieve carbon neutrality in 2019. How did they do it? Mike Lenox, the school’s senior associate dean and chief strategy officer said it happened through good business. Darden partnered with Dominion Energy to help build a solar plant and then purchased power through it. Now, Lenox adds, Darden is taking their commitment to practicing sustainability a step further.

“We believe we can do more, which is why we created a new set of 2030 goals around “how we live” (operations) and “how we learn” (student engagement),” he explained in a 2023 interview with P&Q. “The University of Virginia publishes an annual Sustainability Report that Darden contributes to each year, and we are also in the process of creating our own dashboard and reporting documents.”

Despite its prowess in sustainability, Darden will long be known as a general management program, perhaps the world’s best graduate business school for faculty excellence and case study mastery. The school estimates that students will complete 500 or more cases during their two years in the program. Through these narratives, they learn to quickly size up situations, identify what’s relevant and important, work amid uncertainty and contradictions, and craft positions and solutions that they are able to defend in the classroom. Better still, the case method enables Darden MBAs to learn through the experiences of their peers, adds first year Jeremy Halversen.

“If the 70 people in my classroom each have just 4 years of work experience, we’re talking about nearly 300 years’ worth of interactions with managers and leaders… While none of us in the room are perfect managers, we have all witnessed and been a part of moments of near perfect leadership. Darden’s case method is so good at providing a framework for that experience to be shared in a constructive, formulaic way. It’s amazing to have a helicopter pilot who spent nearly a decade in the US military sitting next to the founder of a tech startup in India. They show up to class, start discussing a case, and pretty soon, without even trying. they are teaching each other what great leadership looks like.”

What makes the Darden case method so effective is the faculty – sometimes described as “high touch, high tone, high octane”. You won’t students taking issue with that description. “Darden’s professors are a different breed,” writes first-year Jade Kimpson. “They really live and breathe what they do. They want us to learn and succeed. I signed up to learn from the passionate ones, and Darden delivered. Learning from people who love what they do? That’s what it’s all about.”

Yes, the Darden difference is more than faculty and cases. There is the Darden Cup, where the five sections compete against each other in everything from basketball to trivia to talent competitions for bragging rights. There is the First Coffee tradition, held each morning at 9:30, where students, faculty, and guests gather to mingle and network.  Of course, there is the one of school’s signature experiences, Darden Worldwide Courses, where students can head overseas to study anything from Italian luxury goods to German AI. Still, Darden will always remain a program to watch because they overdeliver on what their MBAs want most: a great experience.

“Dean Scott Beardsley often says students who come to Darden can expect a great education, a great career, a great network, and a great lifestyle while at school,” explains Dawna Clarke, the school’s senior assistant dean, in a 2023 Q&A with P&Q. “That’s all true, but in terms of what sets us apart, it is that total education experience. Students come to the Darden School because they want to learn and they want to love the way they learn. Students and faculty are serious about the depth of learning that takes at Darden, but the classroom experience is also frequently a lot of fun, and students quickly learn to thrive in an environment of mutual support. Students leave Darden with the tools to grow and lead over the course of a career.”

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