Calling In The Consultants To The Classroom

The rectangular-shaped space looks as if it could be the plush boardroom of a major corporation on Park Avenue. Oil portraits of past leaders adorn the walls. The high-backed chairs around the 20-foot-long conference table are made for lengthy meetings. A pair of McKinsey & Co. consultants are ready to deliver a final report.

The only giveaway is the table. Not quite the real thing, it's topped by mahogany-looking Formica. But after all, this is not the boardroom of Megacorp Inc. It's the dean's conference room at the University of Texas business school. Like so many schools, UT at Austin is in the midst of an effort to overhaul its MBA program to make it more relevant to the business environment of the 1990s. Unlike most of its rivals, however, the school sought the help of McKinsey, the prestigious management consulting firm populated by MBAs.

PRO BONO. McKinsey's peek into the world of management education takes place at a time of massive change and introspection among B-schools. One institution after another, from Columbia University to Indiana University, is revamping the content and structure of its MBA program (BW--Oct. 26). Most schools are making the changes to satisfy corporate customers who no longer want narrowly trained analysts but crave MBAs with broader skills in leadership and teamwork. Texas faces these same challenges, but it also called in McKinsey because of another concern: The school, which frequently ranks near the bottom of Top 20 lists, was afraid of losing its status as a top-tier institution.

Since last spring, McKinsey has been studying the competitive pressures on business schools and Texas' place among them. Much as they would in a more typical strategic study for a corporate client, McKinsey consultants interviewed the business school's major constituents: students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and corporate recruiters. At one point, 10 of McKinsey's crop of MBAs returned to their respective alma maters for two- or three-day visits to study the schools' admissions, placement, and alumni-support services. All told, a team of about 14 consultants has tallied 3,800 hours on the pro bono project, one of 74 assignments the firm has performed free of charge over the last two years for clients ranging from the Joffrey Ballet to the Pittsburgh Public Theater. If McKinsey were to charge Texas for the study, the bill, at roughly $400 an hour, would have run as high as $1.5 million.

The sobering findings and a set of recommendations are spelled out in the 73 pages between the gray-blue covers of the McKinsey report. They range from the painfully obvious and simple, such as updating the school's alumni directory, to the more difficult goal of attracting more experienced and diverse applicants. One unidentified UT professor is quoted as saying that "the students lack the polish of Harvard and Wharton students. . . . They lack the social graces and confidence, as well as leadership abilities."

For their part, students in the report fault the program for its lack of intensity, for offering few electives, and for the absence of what one called a "real-world focus." Added another MBA: "The faculty is so focused on research and theory that they are not paying attention to what companies want out there."

But the toughest conclusions result from McKinsey's interviews with more than 20 major corporate recruiters of MBAs and the consultants' own evaluation of Texas' student population. Their chief concern was the uneven quality of graduates from the MBA program. McKinsey found what it termed "significant deficiencies in quality of work experience, leadership, and student consistency throughout the class."

That wasn't all. McKinsey was also critical of the school's understaffed placement office. "Marketing efforts and service lack aggressiveness, creativity, consistency, and the personal touch to effectively satisfy employer and student needs," the report said.

To Dean Robert E. Witt, these are familiar complaints. In recent years, he has made major changes to the program. The McKinsey study, however, shows that Texas still has a way to go. Witt has also unveiled proposed revisions to the basic curriculum from an internal MBA task force. The faculty is expected to vote on these changes on Nov. 20. This final meeting in late September with the McKinsey team is to clarify the program's future direction and how aggressive the administration needs to be in setting that vision.

PAYBACK TIME. At the head of the table sits Witt, a mild-mannered academic who has been dean of the B-school for eight years. To his right is Tom C. Tinsley, a Stanford MBA and McKinsey director who has racked up about 150 assignments for the consulting firm over a 14-year stint. To his left is Suzanne Porter, a blue-suited product of Texas' MBA program who managed the assignment. For Porter, who graduated from Texas in 1985, the assignment is a chance togive back something to an institution that helped her get where she is. Twoof Witt's top lieutenants also attend.

Tinsley begins the session by urging the school to be far more aggressive in its aspirations. "You have to avoid incrementalism," he says. "You're not the only school worried about these problems. Other schools are worried in a more convincing fashion or are farther ahead than UT. And the people who pay for your graduates are getting more sophisticated about how they recruit."

Porter then weaves through McKinsey's recommendations. Texas, she notes, relies too much on test scores and undergraduate grades in admitting students. The school should interview more applicants, require at least four written essays of candidates--as do other top schools--instead of only one, and use second-year students to review the applications. Among other things, she urges more staff in admissions, placement, and alumni offices.

Near the end of the two-hour meeting, the tone of the session becomes more critical. The McKinsey consultants tell the deans they were surprised at the tepid, unaggressive posture of the school's draft report for changing the program. For example, the consultants believe that Texas' proposed mission statement--"to produce the most competent, creative, and competitive managers possible"--isn't aiming high enough. "When you say you're going to do something as well as possible, it's sort of admitting that you may not be able to do it," says Porter.

But the consultants also agree that there are differences between the corporate world and the groves of academe. Corporations, Tinsley notes, embark on change efforts by launching major programs with catchy names and issuing marching orders to thousands of managers and executives. Universities, on the other hand, are more democratic institutions with strong-willed and often fractious faculties that don't take well to being ordered about. Tinsley gently asks whether Witt believes he has the full support of the faculty behind his effort. The dean agrees that some professors are "sitting on the sidelines," but he also concedes he hasn't created a sense of urgency for the changes.

That's another way in which it may be easier for corporate clients to undertake major revampings. A corporation can point to slumps in profitability or market share to underline the importance of change. "If you can't get that kind of galvanizing event here, it's going to be very difficult," Tinsley says. Ultimately, the conversation focuses on the need for an event the dean can use to energize his institution into activity. "Maybe if you get knocked off the Top 20 list, you'll have it," jokes Porter, as gasps erupt throughout the room.

LIMITED SCOPE. Three weeks later, Porter's joke becomes an unfortunate reality: Texas drops off BUSINESS WEEK's Top 20 ranking because of a lackluster showing in the magazine's survey of corporate recruiters. The student newspaper's headline that week is "Goodbye Top 20!" "This is unbelievable," one disgruntled student is quoted as saying. "I should have gone to Michigan."

For the McKinsey consultants, the assignment was a chance to revisit the sort of institution in which they were all forged--and, in turn, to use their real-world perspective to reshape that institution. But Tinsley later admits that the consultants' corporate experience, while helpful, has some limits when applied to an assignment for a university. "The implementation of this one will be trickier, because the ability to know whether you're succeeding is more difficult," he says. "I just hope they stay committed to the vision of improving the program."

For their part, Dean Witt and his team say they're pleased with McKinsey's study. "They offered us valuable insights, guidance, and opportunity," says Vic Arnold, an associate dean. One way or another, Dean Witt has had his galvanizing event. Now, he and his administrators will have to use it to implement McKinsey's raft of recommendations to make UT a top-tier business school again.

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