A New Blueprint for B-Schools?

UC-San Diego has a risky plan for a tech-savvy, fast-track MBA

How do you build a new business school in a market flooded with MBAs? First, start with a hot research university, throw in a B-school veteran to take the reins, and drum up the support of the biggest companies nearby. Make it interesting by junking the conventional business-school model, and you just might have a fighting chance.

That's the blueprint the University of California at San Diego intends to use when it enrolls its first MBA class in the fall of 2004. UCSD envisions a short, tech-focused MBA program with strong ties to its well-regarded medical and engineering schools. The B-school has already wooed Robert S. Sullivan, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, to head it up. And the administration is giving him the freedom to innovate in a way entrenched B-school deans only dream about. "Business schools have never put into practice what we're telling others to do," contends Sullivan. Now, he's relishing the chance to lead by example.

For UCSD, that means that everything from introductory courses to lecture halls to traditional semesters could be tossed. In their place, MBAs will probably get a broadly integrated curriculum delivered in a one-year program--vs. the traditional two--that rounds out science skills with management knowhow. Only Young Turks with tech savvy need apply: UCSD aims to recruit two-thirds of its students from science and technology backgrounds, and the admissions staff will target applicants around the age of 24--not 27 or 28, as traditional B-schools do. Students who, say, don't already know statistics will take a UCSD course on their own over the Internet rather than waste class time on the basics. And classes will be supplemented with hands-on work in businesses such as local biotech Biosite Inc.

The science focus makes sense: Even as hiring in financial services and consulting continues to evaporate, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have nearly doubled their MBA recruits. Sullivan has studied Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, which is heavily influenced by the school's engineering eminence, and Canada's Queen's University, whose tech-focused MBA shot to No. 2 in BusinessWeek's 2002 non-U.S. rankings. Sullivan will have some local competition--across town, San Diego State University's new B-school dean, Gail K. Naughton, is a biotech entrepreneur--but Sullivan is banking on UCSD's stellar reputation and community influence. More than 160 nearby companies have sprouted from UCSD research.

UCSD won't be the first school to try something different, but observers say it's the most ambitious attempt in decades to reinvent management education. That has excited the San Diego business community, a tech-heavy lot that could be well-served by UCSD's focus. Companies such as Qualcomm Inc. and Sempra Energy Solutions will provide financial support--and a pool of prospective students. Qualcomm CEO Irwin M. Jacobs, who taught computer science and engineering at UCSD from 1966 to 1972, says he anticipates turning promising engineers into managers through executive-training programs at the B-school. Local business leaders hope the new school can spur a maturing San Diego economy. "There are many startups here that have failed," says Malin Burnham, chairman of Burnham Real Estate Services and a former chairman of the UCSD Foundation. "But what if they had had better management training to go with their technical training?"

To get the ball rolling, Sullivan plans to hire 10 faculty members in the coming year. His eventual target is 65 full-time faculty, augmented with 30 adjuncts and professors from other UCSD departments such as medicine, engineering, and psychology. Although the five-year plan calls for a full-time MBA class of 300, Sullivan will open his doors at first to about 100 part-timers sponsored by their employers. The school will need the cash: Like UC-Berkeley and UCLA, UCSD will charge tuition of about $22,700 a year for part-timers. Sullivan won't have as much leeway with full-time students; state rules force University of California B-schools to charge in-state full-time MBA students only about $11,000 a year. That's one-third of the cost of a top private B-school.

Sullivan, 58, has never been afraid to shake things up, even at the most staid B-schools. As dean of Carnegie Mellon University's B-school in the early 1990s, Sullivan soothed overlooked students rankled by a mishandled expansion and redirected a powerful political economy department toward more practical coursework. "It was a mess when he got there, and he turned it all around," says Douglas M. Dunn, now retired, who succeeded Sullivan at Carnegie. Sullivan--who spurned a choice post-MBA job at DuPont in 1968 for a Peace Corps stint in Ethiopia--hopes to exploit San Diego's location to foster ties with Latin America and Asia. That's right up his alley: At UNC, he spearheaded the ambitious One MBA, an executive program delivered by five B-schools on four continents.

Sullivan may be thinking globally, but he'll be rooted in the local, particularly as part of the UC system. That means curriculum changes and faculty hirings will have to be approved by each of the other UC B-schools. "The overcentralization naturally makes things more conservative," warns UC-Irvine's B-school dean, Jone L. Pearce, and could frustrate Sullivan's entrepreneurial impulses. Critical will be the political ability of Sullivan's key staff to work the system.

Sullivan realizes he's locked in the state's fiscal handcuffs but says he'll hit up local execs for seed money in the short term. He's not promising venture capitalists any returns. "Some [ideas] aren't going to work, but shouldn't we try them?" asks Sullivan. Fast-growing San Diego could make a good incubator for Sullivan's big ideas. Successful or not, this startup could become a case study for B-school deans everywhere.

By Brian Hindo in New York

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