Columbia Revamps Its Core

What's in store for Columbia first-years next fall? A curriculum-review member describes changes to the core curriculum, and the rationale behind the moves

Columbia Business School will be launching a new core curriculum in fall, 2008, that faculty say will give first-year students more elective options, while still helping them build a solid foundation of business management skills. The faculty has been designing the new core since spring; it will feature eight new electives and changes to four already required courses, all of which are being tested now.

The changes received unanimous support from the faculty, says Paul Glasserman, the Jack R. Anderson professor of business and senior vice-dean at Columbia and an ex-officio member of the curriculum-review committee. "The whole process of reviewing the curriculum was a very positive one," he adds. "I've served on some previous curriculum-review committees and that hasn't always been the case. This really was the outgrowth of a faculty effort."

Glasserman recently discussed the new core, reaction from students, and the relevance of the MBA degree with reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What exactly has changed and what is staying the same?

We've reduced the total size of the required portion of the core curriculum from nine full-semester courses to six and a half that every MBA student will continue to take in his or her cluster. Some will now be half-term courses. Then, we added a distributional requirement that [has students choosing] three half-term courses from three separate buckets. The buckets are called Organizations, Performance, and Markets. In the second semester, students will have the flexibility to choose one course from each.

Why were those buckets chosen?

They represent a cross section of areas that we wanted to make sure students had as part of their foundation, but where we wanted to also give students a little more flexibility to tailor that material to their career interests. For example, under Markets, which includes courses in economics, some students interested in a career in strategy consulting might choose an economics course that would fit with that objective. Students interested in, say, asset management might be more interested in a macro course. Everyone will still have a half semester of managerial economics and macroeconomics in the required portion of the core. In terms of the additional economics they have, we allow them to tailor their choice to their career interests.

What are some of the more interesting electives that students can anticipate in light of this new curriculum?

In the Organization bucket, which are management courses, one of the choices will be a course called "Power and Influence." That will teach some principles of management in a way that will be very attractive and relevant to students, and it will also recognize that they will need different management skills at different stages of their career. In the Markets bucket, we have a new course called "Strategy, Structure and Incentives," which is about the economics of organizations and strategy.

What motivated Columbia to make these changes?

We're constantly reviewing and updating the core. Each teaching team for each core course updates its material each year. The executive committee of the school rotates through the courses and core curriculum and reviews them on a regular basis. We really have a process of continuing improvement in the core curriculum. We did feel that we wanted to create additional flexibility for students in their first year while at the same time maintaining a strong foundation to the MBA program. The design of the new core reflects that. It allows every student to take at least two electives in the first year. We've also streamlined the process for exempting out-of-core courses, so many students may actually be able to take more than two electives in the first year.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from faculty and students?

This was a core curriculum designed by the faculty, as every change in the core curriculum is here at Columbia. There was a faculty committee that designed the new curriculum. The faculty members are very involved this year in piloting all the new versions of the courses. Even though officially the new core doesn't launch until next fall, every course that is either new or is changing will have been offered at some point during this year.

Have you gotten any reaction from students yet?

They're not the ones who will be taking these new courses, but I think they're enthusiastic about the changes. One of the considerations for us in the design was preserving a strong cluster system. Our students take all of their [required core] courses with the same cluster of 65 students. That's a very strong bonding experience for the students. One of the things we wanted to be careful about was that we didn't lose that very positive experience for the students. Now, there are six and a half courses that they'll be taking in their clusters. It's down from the nine that they were taking before, but it's still going to be a very important part of their experience. Students always say that the bonds they form in their clusters are the strongest bonds they have even many years after they've left business school.

Did students play any part in making these changes to the curriculum?

Yes, student input is an important part of the continuous review of the core curriculum. Teaching and course evaluations are obviously one component. I mentioned that the executive committee regularly reviews courses. For each of those [reviews], we'll hold a focus group with students to get their input. One of the most important goals of those reviews is to make sure the material is up to date and relevant for the students. Each cluster has an academic representative, who is an important channel of communication from the cluster to all parts of the administration on academic matters. Through multiple routes, students have been involved in evaluating and updating the core.

Have recruiters had any say in this new curriculum?

Interestingly, we brought in a panel of representatives from six consulting firms to get their feedback on the courses on operations strategy and management—to go over the syllabus with them and get their suggestions on what are some of the areas that they'd like to see additional preparation on the part of the students. We've done that in one targeted area. I think we'd like to do that in others as well.

Are there any plans for additional changes?

In terms of changes, the core is updated, reviewed, and revitalized on a regular basis. We tend to make changes every few years. I'm sure that will be the case here as well. But [we] have no specific plans for changes.

Why was it important to include flexibility in the curriculum for students?

One of their concerns in the first year is getting prepared for a summer internship. For many of them that's very important. That's one of the reasons why they look for flexibility. Being able to take more electives in the first year allows them to tailor some of the foundational knowledge to what they plan to do during the summer. We, on the other hand, feel it's important for them to have a strong educational foundation for the rest of their careers. That's the [conflict]. You want to provide some flexibility while making sure that you're providing a strong foundation.

Do these changes reflect any trends in business education today? If so, how?

[These changes demonstrate] an intense focus on making sure that everything we teach is relevant to the students. One of the things that happens when you take a core course that was previously a full-semester course and make it into a half-semester course is it forces the faculty to focus on what are the elements of this topic that are absolutely of importance and relevance to every future businessperson.

What do you have to say to those who are criticizing the MBA's relevancy and practicality (, 8/14/07)?

Perhaps, even more important than what I have to say is what applicants have to say. The demand for the MBA continues to be extremely strong, and in fact is growing internationally at all the top schools. Certainly, prospective students see it as very relevant. One of the challenges that a professional school—like a business school—needs to face is striking the right balance of foundational, academic knowledge that is at the same time tied to problems of immediate relevance to the business community. I think that integrating theory and practice happens to be something that Columbia does particularly well. We take advantage of the fact that we're in New York. We have a lot of practitioner faculty for electives. It's very much a part of the culture here.

What hopes do you have for this new curriculum?

We hope all students find that the education they get prepares them for their careers, and that they find the material interesting, engaging, and relevant while they're here.