boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe
Business Intelligence

Redefining the MBA

Facing criticism, business schools bring in new leaders to review mission, find relevance

Autumn in the Boston area means leaves turning, students returning and, this year, the leaders at business schools churning.

A new crop of educators, including a high-profile power broker and pair of Bay State natives coming home from Philadelphia and Silicon Valley, are working to re-brand their schools and reshape business education in an increasingly competitive market.

While demand for master's degrees in business administration has picked up among corporate recruiters after a lull following the Internet boom, business schools have been scrambling to rethink their missions and recast their images in response to critics questioning their ivory-tower aloofness and single-minded focus on maximizing shareholder value.

Their approaches vary, from bringing students into the workplace to customizing MBA programs to training global teams in corporate responsibility, but all struggle to remain relevant at a time of rapid economic change. "Schools are trying to redefine what business leaders need to know," said Rakesh Khurana, associate professor in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.

Gloria C. Larson, who held top administrative jobs in the state and federal governments, has sounded at times like a candidate wooing voters with pledges of a "real world partnership" in her first weeks as president of Bentley College, a one-time accounting school that now boasts MBA and PhD degrees in its business portfolio.

"Bentley's six high-tech learning labs let you 'test drive' the concepts you learn in your classroom," Larson told 1,000 visiting high school seniors at the school's Waltham campus last month.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, David C. Schmittlein officially moves into the dean's office at the Sloan School of Management tomorrow. But in meetings with students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, Schmittlein, a Northampton native who was deputy dean at the elite Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has been stressing the need to boost "experiential learning" with businesses. "Sloan is going to be at the leading edge of a more honest approach to management education," he promised.

And newly installed dean Bruce R. Magid at Brandeis University's International Business School is championing "cross-cultural fluency" as his goal at the Waltham school, where two thirds of students come from abroad. Magid, raised in Sharon, is a former overseas Bank of America executive who founded the graduate business school at San Jose State University. He insisted he's not fazed by taking his place alongside heavyweights like Sloan and Harvard Business School in one of the nation's most crowded markets for management education.

"Having worked in global financial services, I'm used to competition," he said. "We're fortunate to be in the Boston area, but we want to be one of the world's top global-focused business schools."

Ethics also figures prominently in the plans, and the talking points, of the three business educators. Noting that its Center for Business Ethics marked its 30th anniversary this year, Larson said Bentley is moving toward a "holistic" approach to preparing its students for the business world. "You have to be thinking smarter, moving faster, and also being the best global citizen you can be," she said.

The arrival of Larson, Schmittlein, and Magid hastens a leadership turnover at Greater Boston business schools after a long period of stability. Jay O. Light took the reins at Harvard Business School last year. Andrew Boynton became dean of Boston College's Carroll School of Management in 2005, and Thomas Moore dean of Northeastern University's College of Business Administration in 2004.

Business-oriented Babson College in Wellesley, which emphasizes entrepreneurship, is expected to name a new president some time next year. Bentley, meanwhile, is interviewing candidates to be the new dean of business under Larson.

The changes at the top have been accompanied by a reassessment and, in some cases, a tweaking of what marketers call the business schools' "brands" at a time when all are vying for students, faculty members, recruiters, and relevancy. Northeastern, for example, has sought to differentiate itself with an emphasis on practical studies like supply chain management. BC has been building its business program around ethical values, while Harvard has been pushing to extend its leadership brand into emerging fields like healthcare.

But business schools are under scrutiny as never before, and some of their toughest critiques are coming from within. In a new book, "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Education," Harvard's Khurana argues the schools have failed to define leadership in the context of the public good and enshrined maximizing shareholder value as their highest ideal.

Other critics, like Warren Bennis and James O'Toole at the University of Southern California, have warned that business schools have grown overly academic and theoretical, far removed from the actual day-to-day operations of business and management.

Such critiques have clearly struck a chord. Schmittlein, who has been involved in the debate over the mission of business schools for nearly three decades, believes schools should move away from a cookie-cutter approach. He envisions Sloan developing a broader portfolio of programs tailored toward students on different paths, from going into investment management to joining family businesses.

"Why haven't MBA programs been more honest about where students are and where they want to go?" Schmittlein asked rhetorically. "What would be really radical would be organizing MBA programs around activities that students want to pursue."

Larson, who had extensive dealings with movers and shakers in her most recent job at the Boston law firm Foley Hoag, plans to form a "kitchen cabinet" of business leaders to advise her on Bentley's curricula. "It's a crowded marketplace," she said. "There's a spotlight on this next generation. The marketplace is demanding a very different skill set than it needed even 10 years ago. They're demanding high levels of foreign language literacy, cultural literacy, and economic literacy."

And at Brandeis, educators will be focusing on a new "seamless bottom line," in Magid's words. "You want people to come out of here who are excellent managers, are engaged in their communities, and are taking a long-term perspective about our planet," he said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES