Rethinking the MBA Curriculum

Yale plans to switch from traditional first-year courses to interdisciplinary modules.
March 24, 2006

The world economy has changed quite a bit since the 1950s, but many MBA programs still have traditional core curriculums, with wholly separate courses in accounting, finance, and economics. Yale University's business school has decided to take a new approach that will replace such courses in the first year of a program with interdisciplinary offerings that reflect the fluid nature of business.

Senior faculty members in the School of Management voted unanimously Wednesday to begin redesigning the curriculum. Dean Joel Podolny, who is in his first year, and a committee of senior faculty members regularly solicited information from alumni, recruiters, business leaders, students, and what they learned is that students aren't necessarily ready for the interdisciplinary nature of the workplace.

"We can see connections between what we do and all kinds of applications, because we're steeped in it," said Sharon M. Oster, a professor of management and entrepreneurship. "We thought our students would, but it seems not to be true. We need to work harder to help them make those connections earlier in their careers, not just seven years down the road."

Officials from the School of Management were careful to point out that all the faculty voted on concretely was to make change, not any specific changes. But senior faculty members said there is already an outline to start things off with what would significantly change the first year -- and which will start right away.

Up until now, students have taken discipline specific theory courses in their first year, like financial accounting, operations management, and economic analysis. The new structure would consist of three main segments: "Orientation to Management," "Organizational Perspectives" and "Integrated Leadership Perspective."

Orientation to Management, the first segment would be about six weeks long and would include basic economics and accounting.

The Organizational Perspectives segment, which would be about three months long and include around eight courses, is where much of the serious interdisciplinary coursework could occur, with a focus on seeing things from different constituent's points of view. Academic groups ("groups" in the management school are akin to small departments) would be asked to develop teaching material, or a "module," for a particular theme. For instance, "somebody can talk about things from an investor's point of view, and the politics group can talk about how, say, the governor or attorney general of New York thinks about a question," said Jacob Thomas, a professor of accounting and finance who helped develop the plan outline.

One of the major questions that remains is, once modules addressing various topics from multiple perspectives are developed, how will they be integrated into single courses. Thomas said one of two options are likely: either a professor teaching a course will learn the relevant material from his colleagues and present it in class, or the professor will regularly schedule guest teachers.

The third segment, "Integrated Leadership Perspective," could be six-weeks, and may include examination of interdisciplinary case-studies. Somewhere in the mix, faculty members said, there's likely to be a required international trip lasting a few weeks.

Arthur J. Swersey, a professor of operations research, said he thinks that the business school's relatively small size makes a complete overhaul realistic. "We have groups of people, we don't have departments," he said.

And the school will get smaller still. In order to free up faculty members for course development, next year's class -- the first under the new system -- will be down from 220 students to 180.

Those 180 students won't be the only ones jumping into the interdisciplinary pool. One bonus that faculty members identified is that they'll get a chance to learn more about what their colleagues do. Oster said she's "excited" to interact more with her colleagues, and that the process of curriculum review has produced a "rejuvenating feeling."

Oster said she looks forward to ensuring that students are thinking about applications during their first year, not just theory. "When I go to New York on the weekends, I notice that the price of a hot dog in Central Park is more expensive than two blocks away, outside the park," she said. "What is preventing the vendor outside from coming in? I'm not sure my students are wondering the same thing. These are the kinds of things economists think of right away."

Spencer Hutchins, president of the business school's student government, won't be directly affected by most of the changes, but said that students are generally excited, and that administrators met with students weekly to hear their thoughts and keep them up to date.

Swersey added that, the one thing the vote definitely means is that it will be a busy summer for faculty members. "It's a huge change that could change the way recruiters view students," he said. "If it's not done right, people could be confused about what it means."


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