Brown University Gets Into the MBA Game

Brown University Photograph by Denis Jr. Tangney/AP Photo

Brown University’s governing body voted Friday to begin issuing a master’s in business administration for the first time in its history, carving out a decisive, if small, claim to the business school landscape.

The move builds on steps the school has already taken to expand into business education: Since 2011, the Providence (R.I.) university and Madrid’s IE Business School have collaborated on an executive MBA program. Previously, however, graduates of the 15-month program received only a degree from the Spanish school. Now completing the program will earn students degrees from both institutions.

The Brown University Corporation, Brown’s governing body, approved the proposal today to add the degree today, which was presented to the faculty earlier this year, spokeswoman Courtney Coelho says.

The unconventional EMBA program provides courses on corporate strategy, supply-chain management, and “the shared history of slavery and capitalism.”

Now that prospective MBAs can add an Ivy League diploma to that bundle, Brown hopes more students will apply for the program. Other benefits include “enhanced global engagement, visibility and impact,” not to mention additional revenue from the program, which already brings in about $400,000 in profit, according to a summary of the proposal posted online.

Business schools have traditionally been big moneymakers for universities, which turn student demand for MBAs into revenue that can shared throughout the institution. While schools are still investing heavily in business schools, trends in online education and student demographics indicate that the boom may soon reverse itself.

Rather than build a business school from scratch, Brown has been introducing executive degree programs around its existing expertise, says Karen Sibley, dean of the School of Professional Studies at Brown. That includes a master’s degree for health-care executives and plans for an executive master’s for leaders in the fields of engineering and cybersecurity. Those programs are “a very sensible attempt to leverage the talents and capacities that we already have” she says.

The move to offer a degree is confirmation that the program has “become valued and respected” by faculty, students, and administrators, says Sibley. “We think it’s going to help transform business leaders and have a powerful impact on how business leaders view the world.” Most of the eight universities in the Ivy League already offer MBAs, including top-ranked programs at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University. Once Brown begins issuing its degree, Princeton University will be the sole Ivy school that doesn’t offer an MBA.

Since its launch in 2011, the IE Brown program has been an aardvark among EMBA programs, attracting a diverse set of students with its promise to provide a broader view of the world than they would get from the typical MBA playbook of accounting, marketing, and quantitative skills. In the first three years of the program, that has included courses on the globalization of the arts and an ethnographic study of the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa.

“This is stuff that MBAs aren’t hearing about in other places,” says Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown. Rockman’s course on slavery and capitalism considers, among other things, the mobilization of public and private capital required to operate slave-trading businesses and the way accounting practices developed on slave plantations provided a foundation for the discipline as practiced today.

The 30 students in the program’s most recent graduating class were of 20 different nationalities, and almost twice as many students worked in public service as financial services. “The vast majority of our current [students] and alumni would not have opted for an MBA if not for us,” says Ulrike Klaussner, the Madrid-based executive director for the program.

Not everything about the program departs from the traditional EMBA degree. The roughly 30 students in each graduating class are active professionals with an average of 14 years of work experience. That compares with average work experience of 13.7 years and a class size of 43 students among 314 programs that responded to a 2013 survey conducted by the EMBA Council, an industry group.

As with other EMBAs, there is a significant distance-learning component. Students complete about 60 percent of their coursework online and the rest during face-to-face sessions in Providence, Madrid, and Cape Town, South Africa.

Nor are collaborations between U.S. and international schools unique: Others include EMBA programs offered jointly by Columbia Business School and London Business School; and a three-way between HEC Paris, the London School of Economics, and New York University’s Stern School of Business. “It works for someone who has a truly international career,” says Dan Bauer, chief executive of admissions consulting company MBA Exchange. “You get two brands on the résumé, and potentially, access to two alumni networks.”

Brown introduces its MBA at a time when business school deans have questioned whether universities can continue to count on revenue from part-time and executive MBA programs amid changing demographics and the rise of online education. “Half of the business schools in this country could be out of business in 10 years—or five,” Richard Lyons, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, told Businessweek in March.

That hasn’t stopped the business school industry from expanding—the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the most prominent accrediting body for U.S. business schools, approved 17 new schools last week, bringing its total number of accredited institutions to 711.

“Brown doesn’t plan to have a business school in the near future,” says Sibley, and it’s “crazy” to think that offering an MBA through the joint program is a step in that direction.