Wharton overhauls MBA program

December 6, 2010: 10:08 AM ET

After a multi-year study, Wharton announced several changes to its vaunted MBA program, giving increased flexibility to incoming students and offering life-long, tuition-free courses to alumni.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- After what it said was a multi-year study, Wharton faculty voted on Friday to overwhelmingly approve revisions to an MBA program that will offer students greater customization and flexibility based on their backgrounds and experience.

Wharton said that the new MBA program is the result of interviews with "thousands of Wharton's stakeholders," including students, alumni, business leaders, recruiters, faculty, and staff. The school plans a partial rollout of the changes in 2011 with full implementation in 2012.

Dean Tom Robertson, who assumed his job in 2007, announced the detailed changes in a memo to alumni obtained by Poets&Quants.

"The architecture of the curriculum addresses the needs of a new global generation through flexibility, rigor and innovation," he said in the statement. "Our research shows that this generation of business leaders wants greater control over educational choices, continued exposure to peers with deep, global experience and more opportunity in their academic experience to self-analyze and self-reflect."

At Wharton and most schools, there has been ongoing tweaking of the curriculum over the years. But the last significant overhaul of Wharton's MBA program occurred in 1993-94 when then Dean Thomas Gerrity engineered a transformation that catapulted the school to first place in rankings by both BusinessWeek and The Financial Times. In its previous program overhaul, Wharton put more emphasis on "people skills," creativity, and innovation. The school also added greater global perspective and integration to the mainstream coursework.

Since then, many business schools, from traditional elite players such as Stanford and Columbia to newcomers such as Johns Hopkins University Carey School of Business, have put into effect dramatic, if not revolutionary, changes in how they produce MBAs.
Stanford, whose program was unveiled in the fall of 2007, put more critical thinking, leadership development, global content and a required international experience into its MBA. It also gave students more flexibility in customizing their coursework to account for their ability level, offering core classes at several different levels of difficulty.

Even more revolutionary, perhaps, has been the introduction of a new full-time MBA program at Johns Hopkins, one of the last elite U.S. universities without a full-time graduate business program. Hopkins, of course, had the advantage of designing a curriculum from a blank sheet of paper. The school's tagline, "Where business is taught with humanity in mind," informs a curriculum that emphasizes integrative, team-teaching in all the core courses, among many other changes.

"The MBA became a degree in methodology," says Dean Yash Gupta of Johns Hopkins. "We produced masters of financial engineering, people who didn't have heart and soul."
In truth, most so-called curriculum overhauls are cosmetic marketing exercises intended to show that a school is adapting to the changing needs and demands of business. In any case, all program changes are dependent on the willingness of faculty to embrace change in and outside their classrooms.

At the heart of the changes at Wharton is what the school is calling "pathways for fulfillment" -- essentially required courses in six different "content areas" that are broader than the traditional disciplines taught at most business schools. This is similar to changes at Johns Hopkins. The half dozen areas of study are Finance and the Global Economy, Ethical and Legal Responsibility, Managing the Global Enterprise, Understanding and Serving Customers. Corporate Reporting and Control, as well as Management of Operations, Innovation and Decisions under Uncertainty.

Wharton said students would be able to customize learning by selecting a course pathway through these content areas based on their educational and career experiences. Wharton, of course, has long allowed waivers of core courses based on education and work experience. Exactly how this differs from that policy is unclear.

Perhaps the single biggest surprise in the revamp is the promise to provide Wharton grads with tuition-free executive education every seven years throughout their careers.

By giving alums the chance to come back for free education, Wharton may be hoping that this feature of the program is both a benefit but also a marketing opportunity to coax alums back for additional paid training.

"Changing careers and a changing world bring new problems and the need for new knowledge," said G. Richard Shell, a professor and expert in negotiations who served as chair of the MBA Review Committee that created the new design.

The school also plans to strengthen its analytics curriculum. "Course content in microeconomics and statistics will be increased significantly," the school said. "This will assure that students have the tools needed to understand risk, markets, and the role of government when markets fail."

In what is likely a response to a lack of public faith in MBA grads' ethical groundings amid the economic downturn, Wharton plans to adopt what it says is "an integrated focus on ethical and legal responsibility in business."

Wharton also said it will create "new methods of leadership development emphasizing self-analysis. Wharton will provide multiple new leadership development opportunities through learning simulation courses, a two-year coaching experience, and tools to offer self-analysis and self-reflection. This focus will encourage development of the personal skills that are crucial to exemplary leadership."

"Wharton's new curriculum design offers our students a framework for success in a rapidly changing world," added Dean Robertson in a statement. "Business schools must equip the next generation of leaders with the knowledge, skills and perspective they need to meet the global economic, environmental, humanitarian and policy challenges of the future."

Also from Poets & Quants:

The Financials Behind the Harvard-Stanford B-School Rivalry

The Dog Who Earned An MBA Degree

The Biggest MBA Application Killer

Join the Conversation
About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

Email John
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.