Can Tennessee Put Its B School On The Map?

When it comes to teaching business, most MBA programs come in one of two flavors. There's Harvard and schools similar to it that champion the case-study method. Or there are those led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology that stress quantitative analysis. And then, there's the University of Tennessee.

Who? The innovative B-school is trying to make a name for itself by embracing one of the most influential movements in contemporary business: quality management. C. Warren Neel, UT's maverick dean, hopes to build on UT's popular executive education program, among the first to emphasize the quality movement pioneered by W. Edwards Deming. Neel is faced with the challenge of duplicating that success in his graduate and undergraduate programs. "For too long, business schools have been part of the problem," says Neel. "Now, we want to be part of the solution."

That sounds a bit grandiose, coming from the dean of a B-school that graduates just 100 MBAs a year and failed to make BUSINESS WEEK's Top 40 rankings. Rival deans, moreover, doubt that Neel can gain national recognition for the school. "It makes sense for UT to leverage the strength of its executive education program," says the dean of one top school. "But that's not necessarily going to put them in the major leagues."

UNDER PRESSURE. Still, as U. S. companies struggle to regain their competitive edge, many are focusing on quality and customer satisfaction. Ford Motor Co. and Xerox Corp., among others, have made it their mission. Deming and his disciples say improving quality isn't simply a matter of deciding to focus on it but requires using statistical tools to actually measure improvements at all levels of a business.

It's an approach few other B-schools take. Neel wants to fill the educational void, but it won't be easy. Academic institutions typically are lumbering bureaucracies that are slow to change. And not everyone at the university is a quality junkie. "Some of this stuff smacks of being a cult," says one faculty member. Whatever the outcome, Neel has plenty to gain from reform. With demand dwindling in financial services for MBAs, B-schools are under pressure to place grads in manufacturing concerns--the traditional users of quality-management techniques. Yet these companies have long complained that many MBAs are more interested in making money than producing quality products.

Neel, a 54-year-old former International Paper Co. executive who joined UT in 1969, agrees that major changes are sorely needed. "We want to apply the principles of total quality to the school itself," he says. A Renaissance man of sorts, Neel gets his ideas while taking hikes in the nearby Smoky Mountains and puttering at the potter's wheel every chance he gets.

Neel's vision calls for professors to team up to provide "just-in-time" learning. A case study might be presented by profs from marketing, accounting, and management. Financial tools such as cost accounting and spreadsheet manipulation would be taught as the student needs them, instead of at the beginning of the program.

RAKING IT IN. The most revolutionary part of Neel's plan is his desire to eliminate arcane research. Instead of promoting professors for getting published in esoteric journals, he wants to reward teaching performance and practical research. But some UT profs are skeptical because most schools stress theoretical research. "What if someone wants to move to another university?" asks UT accounting professor Norman E. Dittrich.

In his crusade to change the B-school curriculum, Neel is sure to draw on the university's enormously successful executive education program. Ranked third based on program hours in the U. S., after University of Michigan and Harvard, UT's management development institute taught 2,025 executives and raked in $6 million last year.

The executive program took off a decade ago when it began teaching statistical process control, a formula developed by Deming that measures improvements in quality. Since then, executives from Procter & Gamble, Exxon, GM, and Georgia Pacific have flocked to the program.

Some of this enthusiasm for Tennessee's executive seminars has rubbed off on its business school. While many companies are not recruiting at top B-schools because of the economy, Xerox added UT to its roster last year because of its emphasis on quality. And Richard Davis, manager of customer research at P&G, was so impressed with his stint in the executive program that he persuaded his son to attend the business school. "I figure he should get this quality stuff down right the first time," says Davis. That kind of recognition could be the highest mark UT can earn.