A Case Study In Change At Harvard

Tradition isn't easily discarded at Harvard business school: Its rowing crews still paddle the Charles River with oars adorned with dollar signs. But now, amid growing criticism from some students and employers, Dean John H. McArthur and his elite institution finally are set to put forth a surprisingly radical blueprint for reform.

On Nov. 8, the school plans to announce proposals to remake its MBA program--the result of an 18-month-long review of business education by faculty and administrators. Under the proposal, Harvard would reduce class sizes, shift classwork into fewer integrated courses that stress teamwork, and change its toughly competitive grading system (table). It also would alter admission standards, accepting applicants with less work experience in order to increase student diversity.

The proposed changes, details of which were leaked to the student newspaper and confirmed by faculty sources, have met with both surprise and approval. "At HBS, change doesn't come very easily, and when it does, it comes in incremental steps," says Ann Pao, a second-year student and editor of The Harbus News. Adds a former faculty member: "It amounts to quite a powerful reform."

NEW WORLD. Why mess with the HBS formula? Only a few months ago, faculty members and administrators were downplaying the likelihood of any dramatic changes in the school's MBA curriculum, even though Harvard's last major revision occurred in the 1960s. But other schools have overhauled their programs in recent years in order to better prepare graduates for a rapidly changing business world. In other words, Harvard needs to stay competitive.

Administration officials won't say so. In fact, they decline to comment on the proposals. But insiders believe that Dean McArthur and the senior faculty have become supportive of an overhaul in recent weeks. The plan still must gain faculty approval, and it's possible that some specifics may fail to win acceptance. But as one professor put it: "We're fairly certain, given the dean's comments over the past few weeks and the general mood of enthusiasm around here, that change will occur." The B-school may act on the recommendations by yearend and implement them as early as the fall of 1994.

Under the plan, the school would deemphasize its fabled case-study mode of instruction, long heralded as a major advantage over competing programs. Up to 25% of the course work for first-year students would be composed of group projects outside class. Currently, there are minimal teamwork requirements.

The school also would collapse its 11 required first-year courses into four integrated courses on such topics as Managing Product and Services, to be taught by faculty teams. The consolidation, according to confidential documents obtained by Harbus, would change an "increasingly fragmented required curriculum to one that consciously seeks to integrate and unify the essential concepts and skills of management and leadership." Harvard would decrease sections to 72 students from 90, chop its academic year into trimesters from semesters, and use networked computing to integrate technology more effectively into class work.

NOTHING NEW. Many of these proposed revisions have already been installed by other leading business schools. "I don't think this is a new paradigm," says Edward A. Fox, dean of Dartmouth University's Amos Tuck School of Business. "They are trying to do what a lot of us are doing already, and many of the things they're planning we've done for years."

There's no consistent evidence that those changes have been successful. But teamwork, for instance, has long been an essential part of the B-school cultures at Tuck and Northwestern University's Kellogg School. The business schools at Indiana University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have done away with the traditional first-year courses in accounting, finance, and marketing and replaced them with more integrated courses. At these B-schools, MBAs receive only two grades in their first year.

Still, Harvard being Harvard, the proposed remake seems destined to disturb some sacred cows. To encourage collaboration, for example, the plan would do away with the forced grading curve that has long made the school among the most competitive in the world. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief emanating from Boston. "It's not a revolution, but it's definitely a step in the right direction," says Peter C. Lee, a second-year student. "If this gets passed, it will be more in line with what people are trying to do in the business world." There's no forced curve, after all, in Corporate America.

      Changes proposed by a faculty committee at the Harvard business school: 
      The 11 required first-year courses would be folded into four classes 
      MBA students would complete up to 25% of course work in teams; no formal 
      teamwork is required now
      Dreaded forced curve would be abolished in favor of 
      merit grading system
      Applicants with less work experience than current 
      students would be admitted to promote diversity