A globetrotter's MBA program: Worth $140,000?

April 8, 2011: 9:51 AM ET

University of Virginia's Darden School has joined a growing field of business schools offering global MBA programs, with residencies in four continents, at a hefty price.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- If you were a business school dean and had the chance to pull out a blank piece of paper and design the ideal global MBA program, what would it look like?

University of Virginia's Darden School of Business

For Peter Rodriguez, an economics professor and an associate dean at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, this was no theoretical exercise.

Four years ago, Dean Robert Bruner asked him to do just that -- sketch out the best possible design for a new global MBA program for executives. "I remember him saying, 'We need to wake up every day and worry about how we are going to become more global.' I think I wake up every day and worry about it."

Now, years after studying the market, the result of that worry and work will debut this August. Darden's Global MBA program is a bold undertaking in global business education, an experience that promises to challenge current notions of what a global MBA program can be. It also comes at a time when there already is plenty of competition from other programs for global execs. And it won't be cheap. The price: a hefty $139,500, not including an estimated $12,000 in additional travel costs.

Starting in August, some 40 students will undergo six two-week residencies at Darden's home campus in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C., but also in Brazil, India, Europe, and China. A third of the course work will be delivered online, in live weekly classes, with virtual learning teams, and integrated work projects. Some 15 faculty members at Darden will be involved in delivering the program.

And all of it will be taught via the case study method, the dominant teaching approach at both Darden and Harvard Business School. Roughly 20% of the cases will be brand new at launch, designed specifically for the new global MBA.

Faculty members from different backgrounds and disciplines will teach many of the classes in teams. A course called "Understanding Global Markets," for example, will feature four different professors from finance, economics, marketing, and strategy.

"The significance of this model is we teach to the problems of an executive," says Sankaran "Venkat" Venkataraman, a Darden professor and academic director. "Problems do not show up in academic silos, which is how most business schools are constructed. They often transcend individual disciplines."

What makes a global MBA program global?

The origin of Darden's program is a case study in educational innovation itself. There is no shortage of global executive MBA programs. In the past 10 years, it has been a fertile area for innovation and growth and there are now dozens of such programs that feature partnerships with business schools on different continents, including OneMBA, a novel partnership among five different schools, including North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, on four continents.

Darden had the benefit of learning from many other players -- and from a deep dive in globalization by Dean Bruner, who chaired a task force on the topic for the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business, the leading accreditor of B-schools.

With a charge from Bruner to create the quintessential global program, Rodriguez immediately tackled three central questions:

1. Why launch a global executive program and what do you really want out of it?

Starting the program wasn't about creating a new source of revenue. "If I just needed customers then we would have expanded our local programs," he says. "But we saw this as essential to our strategy as a school to help create the world's best business leaders. And we don't do volume. We do intimate, elite, leadership experiences."

2. Do you need to partner with other schools?

Surveying the competitive landscape, Rodriguez discovered that there already are some 40 programs that are the result of partnerships that involve a domestic country school and at least one outside its borders. "In the partnership model," he says, "a lot of the schools had a less homogenous approach to the learning. The faculties were not integrated. There was one approach at one school, and another approach at the other. We concluded we wanted to own and insure the quality of the experience from beginning to end than go to a partner right at launch, we agreed to get our footing and then seek partners."

3. What do you need to teach the students in the program?

Rodriguez says he sought to create a program that would prepare students to be "globally aware, to help them understand the opportunities and risks in a global business world."

"Very few of the existing programs looked at the whole global economy but instead focused on a couple of regions in the world," he says. "So few took on the bigger challenge of thinking about the entire world and the challenge of being a manager in a highly global organization."

This kind of approach meant nothing less than a rethinking of the MBA curriculum. "We ended up believing we had to do two things: one, we had to go back to the blackboard and redesign our curriculum," adds Rodriguez. "A tweak here and there wouldn't work."

Most international case studies focus on an American or European multinational operating in a single country, such as China. So Darden had to hire more case writers and offer incentives to professors to write more cases on companies in China, India, Latin America, and Europe. Many case studies will be written from the perspective of multiple disciplines.

"Most of the other [executive MBA] programs are being largely taught by subject experts who lecture on an individual subject area," says Venkat. "We are doing a lot of integrative courses with multiple faculty members teaching in a single class."

Academic tourism or rigorous education?

The Darden team agreed that there should be no shortcuts for an executive MBA program. Instead, the global executive program requires the same number of courses and credits as the full-time MBA.

Ultimately, the team decided on four residencies outside the U.S. because that was deemed the minimum number of regions to make the program truly global.

"A drive-by experience of a week or less would be too little to marry the curriculum to the location," Rodriguez says.

The team settled on two-week stints, evenly spread across the 21-month program. It begins with two weeks in Charlottesville in late August followed by a distance-learning portion.

The second term begins in mid-January of 2012 in Brazil with two weeks in Sao Paulo and/or Rio de Janeiro. The third term kicks off in Beijing and Shanghai in May of 2012, while the fourth term starts off with an immersion trip in September of 2012 in Paris and Berlin. The final international two-week residency begins in December of 2012 in India, in New Delhi and/or Chennai. The program ends with two weeks in Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., in May of 2013.

If some of this smacks as academic tourism, Rodriguez is quick to counter that the students will be worked as hard as they are on campus. "Talk to existing students in any one of our programs, and they will disabuse you of any notion that this is easy," he insists.

Dean Bruner sees the program's launch as part of the widespread experimentation by schools to become more global. "The players in the field are trying a lot of different things," he says. "It's like an early stage, high growth industry, with a lot of joint ventures, partnerships, and startups. The bar is very high and should be because of the incredible growth in global business itself."

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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.

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