Harvard Business School is changing its curriculum, but whether it can reform business-school culture remains to be seen.
The university caused a stir last week when it said it would significantly revamp its M.B.A. program, adding new required courses with an increased focus on ethics and teamwork. It’s an unusual step away from the school’s lauded case-study method of teaching and the start of a planned overhaul—made more urgent as the school seeks to restore a reputation tarnished by the financial crisis.
The changes are also part of an effort to diffuse what many see as a money-hungry culture that prevails at elite business schools—a culture that some say helped create the recent crisis on Wall Street. “The public lost trust in business, and some of our graduates seem to be responsible for that,” says Nitin Nohria, who was appointed dean of the school in July 2010.
At the elite schools, there’s a growing sense that students don’t care about what goes on in the classroom, only about the connections they’re developing between themselves, says Rakesh Khurana, a management professor at Harvard who has studied business-education practices. “It’s not clear what the purpose of business education is,” he says. “It’s got to be more than high-paying jobs and more than a place to build elite social networks.”
But critics are skeptical that curriculum changes alone can budge the M.B.A mindset. The culture is one of entitlement, says 2006 Harvard B-school graduate Philip Delves Broughton, author of “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School.”
“If Harvard wants to produce the people who will run the future of the world, then that’s the criteria you have to be held accountable for,” Mr. Broughton says. “And these changes seem pretty feeble.”
Class of 2012 student Michael Belkin says there’s a joke among some Harvard students that there are three S’s: study, sleep, and socializing, and that students really only have time for two of the three. “A lot of students are here to network for the rest of their career and will downplay a lot of the studying,” he says.
Prof. Khurana says that he’d be happy if more Harvard students ended up in entrepreneurial ventures or in fields like health care, energy and environmental sustainability rather than the traditionally popular jobs, like management consulting and investment banking.
The changes are aimed to create “leaders of competence and character, rather that just connections and credentials,” says Chief Marketing Officer Brian Kenny.
The school is still sketching out the specifics, but Mr. Kenny says three new required classes in the first year will take students outside the classroom. At least one class will cluster students in groups of six or seven and task them with creating a new product or business.
The new classes aren’t a replacement for other first-year requirements. Harvard is tacking on a course to the beginning and end of the first year, as well as requiring students to work a three-week internship in January, normally a holiday when optional activities were offered.
The idea is to foster an atmosphere of connection among students clustered in groups—instead of operating as individuals dissecting case studies in classes of about 90 people. “This will heighten their sense of responsibility and empathy to six more people,” Mr. Nohria says. “And it won’t be just during a case study that lasts 80 minutes.”
Harvard has built a thriving business around the case study. Invented at the school in the 1920s, case studies—the collection features more than 13,000—examine real-world management issues such as the battle between Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. They’re written up by professors and sold to other schools. In 2010, the school sold 9.6 million cases. Mr. Nohria says that the case-study method will remain a core part of the school’s culture.
To the outsider, the changes seem minor. Yet they’re such a departure for the school that officials informed already-accepted students of the news in case they wanted to back out before the fall, says Mr. Kenny.
Harvard isn’t the only school overhauling its program with a stated effort to create more ethical leaders. Last fall, the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business began asking new questions for recommendation letters and applicant interviews to screen for ethical candidates, says Richard Lyons, dean of the school. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School recently unveiled new coursework to instill a better understanding of financial risk, its first major change in 17 years, says dean Thomas Robertson
Still, some point out that while the M.B.A.’s reputation in the public eye may have diminished, admissions offices are still getting flooded with applicants. “Have people stopped recruiting from top programs? No. Are admissions requests down? No,” said Stanford Graduate School of Business management professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. “At the elite schools, salaries are still high. There’s no sign of any diminished anything.”
Research for the Harvard revamp was underway in early 2008 and was accelerated under Mr. Nohria, a professor at the business school for more than 20 years and an outspoken critic of management education and the leaders M.B.A. programs produce.
At most business schools, a search committee scouts out potential candidates and recommends a finalist, but Harvard University President Drew Faust chose Mr. Nohria personally for the position. “In the course of the dean search, we did a great deal of introspection,” she said. “It was very important for us to learn from what the alumni did and confronted [during the financial crisis.]”
The school considered giving students more flexibility in choosing electives and letting them opt out of classes that they already had a background in. Also considered: more work on accounting and analytic basics. Ultimately, however, “We needed to focus on cultivating judgment not basic analytical tools,” Mr. Nohria says.
It’s unclear whether curriculum change will bring actual change, says Warren Bennis, professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and a former professor at Harvard University. “Nitin Nohria is finally putting some teeth into something that’s been discussed for several years,” he says. “But it’s going to take a lot more to build a new culture.”
By DIANA MIDDLETON And JOE LIGHT Wall Street Journal, Education