A New Business Plan

The University of Minnesota's management school has changes in store for undergraduates next fall: mandatory travel abroad, and a new nonprofit track.
September 26, 2007

Could an undergraduate business program offer an M.B.A.-like experience?

Probably not, for the simple reason that most M.B.A. students have several years of work experience before setting foot on campus. But the University of Minnesota is taking an unusual approach in revamping its undergraduate curriculum at the Carlson School of Management, with an emphasis on a unified, immersive core curriculum; a requirement that students study in or travel to another country; and a new major in nonprofit management.

Beyond looking for that common experience -- in which students remain in study groups that span four core courses (in finance, marketing, operations and strategy) during a single semester in their sophomore year -- the new curriculum's mandatory travel-abroad component appears to be unique among undergraduate business programs at public universities, and only New York University has a comparable requirement, said Alison Davis-Blake, the dean of Carlson.

"Our intent is that students will have some substantive experiences abroad ... and hopefully put them in context with business abroad in some way," she said.

If that sounds a little vague, it's because the curriculum -- which goes into effect next fall -- is still being finalized. Davis-Blake suggested that several different forms of travel or study abroad would be acceptable to fulfill the requirement, including the traditional semester abroad. Other options include a week or two spent between semesters at a "global enrichment elective" in another country; a regular-semester course that includes a travel component; or even a summer internship abroad.

Davis-Blake said the international component largely resulted from focus groups with recruiters, who increasingly prefer some experience abroad from their job candidates. Whether it catches on at the undergraduate level nationwide -- as opposed to the graduate level, where some programs have similar requirements -- may have to do with more than just the success of its alumni.

"I think adding a requirement [for] your undergraduate business school ... while good in theory, may have some implementation issues that may prevent this from becoming a widespread phenomenon," said Richard A. Cosier, the dean of Purdue University's undergraduate School of Management and Krannert Graduate School of Management and incoming chairman of AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. He added that students' "comparability of experience" may be low because of the various ways they could fulfill the requirement, suggesting that the idea that all students should travel abroad might be undermined if there was no consistent end goal that they all came away with.

But that might be the idea. "I think this is something that’s more like an internship requirement ... and internships are about as different as people can be," Davis-Blake said.

A New Start

The school took a serious look at its curriculum after making a commitment to expand its undergraduate program from about 1,600 students to a projected 2,400 in the next two years. Student demand was high, business leaders in the Twin Cities were interested and a new building dedicated solely to undergraduate business students -- the Herbert M. Hanson Jr. Hall -- was in the works. Davis-Blake became the school's dean last year amid strong growth in applications -- increases of 12 to 13 percent a year for the past several years, she said, and a class of 444 picked this past year out of approximately 4,000 applicants -- and saw, too, an opportunity to make substantive changes to the way the program was structured to coincide with its new public face, opening next year.

“At the same time, we had some student feedback and they were looking for more from us, so it all came together,” she said.

So they listened. They heard from business groups, recruiters, alumni and students; took surveys; reviewed programs at other universities; and consulted external reviewers. Aside from the international requirement, they found that there was high demand among students for something they weren't already offering, at least on paper: a major in nonprofit management.

That major has already been approved for this semester in conjunction with the university's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, which is also helping to design the overall curriculum. Like the travel-abroad requirement, a focus in nonprofit management is more typical of graduate programs. The idea, said Bob Ruekert, Carlson's associate dean for undergraduate programs, is for students to combine the nonprofit track with a second major in one of the more traditional areas of finance, marketing or accounting.

And although many of the courses in the major already exist and were part of a nonprofit management minor, the partnership with the Humphrey Institute will yield new courses and feature as its centerpiece a "capstone" course taught by Ruekert and held in cooperation with local nonprofit organizations.

As an example, students might perform a strategic analysis of a local hospital's plan to open a Level 1 trauma center -- as they will at Children's -- applying traditional business approaches to the nonprofit sector.

"So it’s really about the intersection of for-profit and not-for-profit. And it’s been a very popular course with both our nonprofit clients and with students," Ruekert said.

That popularity is in line with the growth of interest in the nonprofit sector nationwide, a phenomenon that in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region may even outpace private-sector growth, Ruekert suggested. That's not necessarily surprising, given Minnesota's history at the forefront of the Progressive era. "This is a very interesting community; it’s had a longstanding tradition of being very active in ... the social welfare area. Even the corporate world here has had a long tradition and track record of giving back to the community ... that really exceeds most of the other areas in the country," Ruekert said. "So it’s a good match for us, a good fit; we should be doing this."

Cosier, of Purdue, questioned whether a separate major was necessary to teach principles that were essentially applicable in various management situations, whether in a foundation or a corporation. But Ruekert said there were enough differences to merit the new program.

"Some of the coursework … is developing an appreciation for how nonprofits operate differently," he said, citing the mission-centered, as opposed to profit-maximizing, approach. At the same time, he noted, "There are peculiarities and different context issues that most of the students aren’t as sensitive to or aware of," such as "different reporting mechanisms that you need to do in the nonprofit area" for accounting purposes.

The undergraduate program, which students apply to directly either as incoming freshmen or rising sophomores, will also begin offering a freshman seminar to new majors next fall, an experience that the curriculum's designers hope will provide some grounding before the requirements begin en masse the following year.


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