Boston University

How BU's B-school plans to take on Harvard and MIT

June 22, 2012: 10:20 AM ET

An impartial observer couldn't even call this a David vs. Goliath match, but Boston University's B-school dean has very big plans, starting with a major revamp of the MBA curriculum.

Boston University's Kenneth Freeman

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- Soon after Kenneth Freeman arrived as the new dean of Boston University's School of Management two years ago, he began talking about a rather audacious goal: To ultimately convince people that there are really three elite business schools in Boston.

Is it a mere pipedream to think that BU could spring to mind with such world-class players as the Harvard Business School and MIT's Sloan School of Management?

After all, an impartial observer wouldn't even call this a David vs. Goliath match. The school significantly trails its rivals in every MBA ranking. Its endowment is under $100 million, little more than 3% of Harvard's $2.8 billion. Less than one in 10 alumni donate money to the school in any given year, about a third of the total at either MIT or Harvard.

Matching (literally) the school's future to the economy's future

Freeman, however, doesn't think his goal is unreachable. In fact, to realize his dream, the former chief executive of Quest Diagnostics Inc. (DGX) is betting the future of the school on the future.

The school has identified the three sectors of the economy where it believes, in his words, "there will be more job creation, more financial market creation, and more value creation for societies, communities, and countries over the next five, 10, and 20 years." Those include health care and life sciences, digital technology, and alternative energy and sustainability. With faculty approval, Freeman is now aligning the school's professors, research, and curriculum around those economic growth areas.

In academia, where loyalty is to a discipline rather than an industry or economic sector, Freeman, 62, is attempting a revolutionary change. Whether the Harvard MBA can pull it off is anyone's guess, but the odds are certainly not in his favor.

The single biggest challenge, of course, will be to convince faculty to focus on the three sectors when they have already hitched their careers to disciplines such as accounting, finance, marketing, or strategy. Concedes N. "Venkat" Venkatraman, a long-time management professor at the school, "Faculty members aren't drawn to the sectors as easily as employers and students. But I don't think that we can distinguish the school by only writing in academic journals." More

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