A New Vision for Villanova

Dean James Danko talks about changes in store for the undergraduate business curriculum at the Pennsylvania school

James Danko, dean of Villanova University's School of Business, was on the front line of major curriculum revisions during his stints at the University of Michigan and Babson College. After two years at the helm of Villanova's undergraduate program, he's ready to tackle the curriculum revision process again.

With his guidance, the undergraduate business school is undergoing a complete faculty reorganization. The business school is in the midst of consolidating its academic departments and creating new umbrella research groups where faculty can have space to conduct research and design new curriculum. It's part of a push by the school to prepare students for a workplace where innovation and creativity are playing an increasingly important role. Danko is approaching the project with the eye of an entrepreneur—he owned his own company for 17 years—and the experience of a veteran academic.

He recently spoke with BusinessWeek reporter Alison Damast about the changes he is implementing at the school. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Why did you feel the need to shake things up on campus?

When I came here, I felt institutionally we needed to make other changes. If we were going to be a leader in innovation, we ourselves had to be innovative. We couldn't just talk about it, because there's a lot of lip service out there. We formed a faculty group committee, and my mandate was to come up with two or three potential ways we might organize ourselves to become more multidisciplinary.

What solutions did you and the committee members come up with?

You have to change the culture of an original system to have a long-term impact. Rather than doing this on the edge and hiring two or three people to teach entrepreneurship, what we are trying to do is create a new reality for the B-school.

The first thing I wanted to do was to break down the traditional academic departments, which are the major organizing element of the faculty. At the same time, I realized that tearing them apart would have been too destructive, and I don't think that would have gone down well. I was looking for solutions, a new way to tap into this. I reduced the departments here from six to five and instead of departments, I called them academic areas. I told each faculty member that they needed to have a home in one of the academic areas: accounting and information systems, economics and statistics, finance, marketing and business law, and management and operations.

How do these departments fit into the overall curriculum revision plan?

The departments will be part of four new strategic initiative groups at the school; analytics, business innovation, corporate social responsibility, and financial services. Each faculty member will have a period of time, almost like an open enrollment period, to apply to be part of a group. We are looking for faculty to come together around these areas and drive curricular changes through these groups. Most of our senior faculty has agreed to head up these groups, and we're partnering them with a business executive who works in this field. I wanted to make sure in all these areas we're thinking about how what we do here plays out in the real world.

It seems like these changes might require some financial support to help them get off the ground. How will you fund this initiative?

We're in the midst of fundraising, and I've assured each group they'll have an annual budget of $250,000 to get these things off the ground. I have come up with alumni who have immediately given me some cash towards this strategic plan because they're impressed with its innovative nature. They see this as a step forward in a more aggressive, innovative approach to how we manage a business school.

Will students see a big difference on campus this fall?

The impact of the change will be a little bit long-term. It's a two-year drive. In the time I've been here, we've put together course development grants and research development grants that are already starting to impact our courses. We are providing a lot of support to faculty. There's no faculty member who has come to us with an idea for team teaching or wanted to develop an integrated course who did not get funding. The redesign committee is talking about new courses and programs they want to have. The idea is that by the fall of 2008 we'll have some of the new elements of the curriculum in place.

How does this change fit into the larger push in the business school world for curriculum redesign?

The notion of curriculum change is not anything new. One thing I've learned from this experience is the importance of making this part of the school's larger mission. In a lot of places I think you end up with one-off initiatives around curriculum change. What I'm trying to do is get the faculty to change their perspectives and thinking.

One of my frustrations in academia is that there has always been a lot of talk around change and innovation, but frankly, I've never thought it was deep enough or dramatic enough. I think this is consistent with the movement for innovation in curriculum, but I'm hoping it's more aggressive and more institutionalized.

Will this help Villanova compete with the other top Catholic business schools, like Boston College, Georgetown, and Notre Dame?

What really struck me as I was recruited into this position was how strong the education was and how strongly alums felt about the place, but it was not getting the recognition it deserved. I made an early push to gain more visibility for the school. What I told everyone early on was that one of our missions was to gain national recognition as a premier B-school and leverage our multidisciplinary faculty and undergraduate program to achieve such.

I think some of the external reputation-building is paying off. There were 2,000 applications the year before I came here, and this year there were 4,000. The applications have doubled in two years' time. The average SAT score is 1350 for the incoming class. It has been a significant improvement as measured by the applications and by the quality of the students, as well as the resources that are flowing into the school.