Wharton Faculty Backs Curriculum Overhaul

For the first time in 17 years, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, one of the world's premier MBA programs, has announced a significant overhaul of its curriculum, shifting everything from the structure of required classes to how executive education is delivered. The curriculum change, which will be partially rolled out in the fall of 2011 and fully executed in the fall of 2012, was approved by approximately 87 percent of the faculty in a vote today, a school spokesperson told Bloomberg Businessweek.

One of the cornerstones of the curriculum overhaul is a new commitment by the school to offer an executive education course to MBA graduates free of charge once every seven years. The Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile)will be the first top school to do this, making a lifelong pledge to its graduates, says Dean Thomas Robertson.

"We can educate our students for today but that doesn't mean that 20 or 30 years from now—or even less—they won't need skills in another area," says Robertson. "We think that is a breakthrough. We're making a major commitment to our students."

The school has spent several years working on the curriculum overhaul, interviewing thousands of students, alumni, corporate executives, and deans from as far away as Brazil, India, and China on how they foresaw the business world evolving in the next 20 years, says Richard Shell, chairman of the MBA Review Committee and a professor of legal studies, business ethics, and management at Wharton. The result is a curriculum that will offer students greater flexibility in course choices, a more global experience, and increased expertise in such areas as ethics and analytics. It will also help the school lower the costs entailed when faculty members develop new courses and will allow them to integrate courses more smoothly into the curriculum, he says.

A Rapidly Responsive Curriculum

"We wanted to be able to respond much more easily to change in both management practice and in the way countries and economies interact," Shell says.

The updated curriculum move comes on the heels of Wharton's appointment of vice-deans for innovation, international business, and social impact—all new positions, Robertson says. One of the curriculum changes has already been implemented with the introduction this year of eight global classes students can take in such countries as India, China, Brazil, and South Africa.

Under the new curriculum, students will have greater flexibility in choosing choices than ever before. Wharton currently requires them to take 10 semester-long classes in the program's first year. Starting in 2012, students will be required to take four required courses in analytics and leadership skills and will be granted more flexibility regarding other requirements, Robertson says.

For example, all students must take classes within six "pathways" within which they can customize their class choices. In the operations-management pathway, students can choose to focus on innovation or decision-making, Shell says. In the area of ethics, students can follow their specific interests in choosing between a class on global ethics and the law or a class on financial services, ethics, and the law, he adds.

Professional Feedback in Leadership

Other shifts include a stronger emphasis on leadership and self-evaluation. Students must participate in a two-year leadership coaching program that will provide professional feedback coaching three or four times a year on what they've accomplished in their MBA program, as well as complete 360ñdegree leadership evaluations.

In addition, there will be a stronger emphasis on so-called soft skills such as oral and written communication; all students will be required to take a class in this area during the first year of the program. In recent years the school has gotten requests from recruiters and corporate recruiters asking for students with greater skills in these areas, Robertson says.

Faculty also voted to make students take required course work in microeconomics and statistics. The financial crisis and the renewed emphasis on risk management in the business world played a role in the school's decision to place a stronger emphasis on this area, says Shell.

Wharton is among a handful of top schools that have recently updated their curriculums, including University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile).Haas revamped its curriculum in May, placing fresh emphasis on analytical thinking, flexibility, and creativity in the MBA course work, along with revamped courses in leadership.Back in 2006, Stanford launched a new curriculum that allows students to tailor the MBA program according to their prior education, work experience, and career goals.

Darden Overhauled its First Year

Other schools have also begun to take a closer look at their MBA programs include the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile), which conducted an extensive review of its full-time program during the last 18 months, the school has said. This fall, Darden overhauled the first year of its MBA program, offering pilot seminars for first-year students and changing the schedule of first-year courses to allow student to better balance recruiting activities, club events, and course work, the school said.

Wharton's overhaul is perhaps the most ambitious recent curriculum overhauls, with its broad emphasis on everything from trying to individualize course work for students to its lofty executive-education goals, says Dan LeClair, vice-president and chief knowledge officer at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a leading business school accreditation agency.

"What makes it a bit unique is that the Wharton overhaul addresses a number of challenges that MBA programs have had over the years, sort of all-in-one-big-swoop, as opposed to focusing on one particular challenge as other schools have done," LeClair says. "It's Wharton in typical Wharton style. Only a school like Wharton could do this scale of change and address so many things all at once."

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