Wharton Rewrites The Book On B Schools

Throughout the roaring Eighties, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School held sway as the school of high finance. No less a whiz than Michael R. Milken listed a Wharton MBA on his resume. After several grads became entangled in Wall Street scandals, the school's investment banking club even adopted the nickname "The Unindicted."

Now, Wharton is embarking on an overhaul of its MBA program. The aim: to turn out what Wharton hopes will be the business leaders, not just the financiers, of the 21st century. The makeover, says Wharton Dean Thomas P. Gerrity, is "bold, dramatic, and revolutionary."

Probably so, and yet some students and faculty think the school is changing too swiftly, even though the plan will be phased in for the entire school over two years. Only 130 randomly chosen students from Wharton's entering class of 780 will start the program this fall. Some students, mindful that Wharton ranks among the top 10 business schools, fear the changes could devalue their degrees. Moreover, says Alexandra Zaporozec, an MBA student on Wharton's curriculum committee, "it gives some people the willies because they're going to have to work much harder."The new program, which will cost a minimum of $2 million to develop, is part of a wave of innovation now surging through the B-schools. But thus far, no top-drawer school has gone as far as Wharton in reinventing itself. "It represents major progress in business education," says Jean-Pierre Rosso, president of Honeywell Europe and part of a panel that sparked the changes.

The changes grew out of a 1990 Wharton study on the needs of successful companies and their leaders in the next century. The school also consulted business futurists and chief executives and asked leading corporate recruiters to come up with a "wish list." Students, alumni, and faculty met in focus groups.

What they came up with is the most radical departure in business education since the early 1960s, when most schools adopted their current curriculums. For starters, new students will have to report on Aug. 5, four weeks earlier than usual, for a "pre-entry program" of courses, computer labs, social activities, and speeches. Liberal-arts grads will get accounting and statistics. Students strong in math will study art history and sociology. This way, it's hoped, the core courses will accomplish more.

'FLYING SQUADS.' The usual two semesters a year have been tossed aside in favor of four six-week "modules." And courses no longer will be taught as isolated disciplines. The basic marketing module, for example, will overlap with operations management, finance, microeconomics, and statistics. Up to a third of the course's dozen sessions may be team-taught by "flying squads" of professors from other disciplines.

Then, before the third module begins in January, students will spend a full week on a new international business game. After the third and fourth modules, eight-student teams will work on four-day "integrative case studies" that will require them to produce video presentations of business plans. In May, students will travel abroad--half to Europe, the other half to Japan--for a month of classes on culture and politics and field trips to foreign operations.

A novel series of sessions on leadership and ethics will run during the entire first year. Wharton is working with a psychiatrist on group-interaction exercises and with a consulting firm on personality tests. Test results will appear as video vignettes of character traits. This way, bullies will see themselves and listen to analysis from classmates. "It may be humiliating for some, but they're going to see exactly how others perceive them," says Vice-Dean David Reibstein.

In the second and final year, which begins Sept. 5, core requirements will include "Global Strategic Management" and one of five new minicourses en such topics as "Geopolitics" and "Information." They'll be taken along with the usual array of electives. The following January, five-person teams will work with companies that will invite them inside to study their actual business problems.

It's a far cry from the more theoretical, numbers-crunching curriculum that formed decades of MBAs. Maybe Mike Milken should ask to go back to school in lieu of prison.

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