Wharton Overhauls
MBA Curriculum

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New course formats, greater curriculum flexibility, and twice as much statistics homework. Those are a few of the things Wharton MBA students can expect beginning in 2012. The Wharton faculty voted in December to implement a new design for the MBA program, and the changes go well beyond the cosmetic. Students will have more latitude to customize their course loads in the first year, the cohort system will be dialed back, and graduates will henceforth be entitled to tuition-free executive-education training programs every seven years after the completion of their degree.

Wharton Dean Thomas S. Robertson says it was “time to take a major fresh look” at a curriculum that had last been substantially revamped 17 years ago. The world of commerce has changed in countless ways over that span, and so have the needs of MBA students.

The new design is the product of several years of work and approximately 4,000 interviews with students, faculty, alumni, recruiters, and business leaders.

“At the student level,” Robertson says, “flexibility was a major request. Until now, the MBA program has been fairly much lockstep for the first year. So students weren’t necessarily able to begin taking courses in what their chosen field might be and which might help them as they interview for summer positions.”

Contemporary MBA students enter the program about a year-and-a-half older, on average, than their predecessors did two decades ago. (Additionally, some 40 percent of them come from outside the United States.) Given the extra work experience they usually have, today’s students often have a clearer idea of exactly which courses will serve their careers best.

In the current format, first-year students must all take the same 10 required courses. Henceforth they will be able to choose among multiple courses in each of six content areas: finance and the global economy; ethical and legal responsibility; managing the global enterprise; understanding and serving customers; corporate reporting and control; management of operations; and innovation, information, and decisions under uncertainty.

Richard Shell, the Thomas Gerrity Professor, chaired the committee on curriculum change. He says another thing that emerged from interviews with students and recruiters was a strong sentiment that “more emphasis on experiential learning, communication skills—oral and writing—and more emphasis on soft skills related to people was critical.” So the new program design will feature courses, coaching programs, and other content geared toward communication, leadership skills, and “self-analysis and self-reflection.”

It will not come at the expense of analytical rigor, he says. Among other tweaks, students will be required to take twice as many statistics and microeconomics courses. Considering the world’s recent experience with asset bubbles and perilous risk mismanagement, Shell notes, “it’s a sort of responsible thing for a business school to make sure our grads can understand risk and probability.”

The most unusual aspect of the new program design is Wharton’s commitment to providing continuing education, cost-free, to alumni at seven-year intervals. This promise appears to be unique among American business schools.

“When the MBA program students leave,” Dean Robertson explains, “we hope they’re educated for the world that they will experience. But the world changes rapidly. When MBAs arrive, we tell them that probably half will have careers in industries that don’t exist. In fact, if we look back over the past 20 years, our MBAs are working in private equity, or hedge funds, or Internet-based companies, or biotechnology, or whatever, and none of these industries existed when they graduated 20 years ago. So there’s a need for ongoing education.”

At present, Wharton has one of the largest executive-education programs in the world. The school’s leadership hopes that making what Robertson calls a lifelong “knowledge partnership” with its MBA alumni will further enhance both their own careers and their alma mater’s educational offerings.

Says Shell, “I hope it means our grads will come back and teach us a thing or two.” —T.P.
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 2/24/11