April 13, 2008 6:08 pm

Dean profile: David Schmittlein of MIT Sloan

David Schmittlein is full of surprises. It is easy to think that, as the newly appointed dean of MIT Sloan, and formerly a professor at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, he may have a US-centric view of management education. Not so. While the top US schools promote the two-year MBA as the gold standard he has different views.

“The future of management education is not the future of the MBA,” he says – a statement that would horrify most of his US peers, as he well knows. “I would like to be the first North American school that gets this,” he adds.

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It is perhaps not surprising that MIT Sloan should be the first of the top US business schools to argue there is more to life than the MBA. Sloan has a small undergraduate programme and the Sloan Fellows programme, a full-time, one-year course for seasoned managers.

For Prof Schmittlein, there should be an appropriate programme for managers at every point in their careers. “We will be driven by growth in the number of programmes [we offer], not by a bigger MBA.” True to his word, he intends to launch a one-year masters programme in management – similar to many offered in Europe – for those who have just finished an undergraduate programme. The school has already announced that it will launch a specialised masters degree in finance and more specialised masters look set to follow.

As to the MBA itself, he believes this will form a critical tool for people in their late 20s who want to change careers. With this in mind, the school is reducing the core of the MBA – the first part of the programme that all students study together – to a single semester. This would be heresy in a more traditional MBA programme, but Prof Schmittlein is unrepentant. “In the backrooms, no one really believes that they need a one-year [core] course.”

This will enable Sloan to offer more focused elective tracks to suit students’ individual needs. “People who come to Sloan come for just four or five things,” he says – finance or strategy, for example.

But cutting the MBA to a one-year programme is not on the cards. “The reason that the MBA is two years is because people want to accomplish a thoughtful career transition,” he maintains.

Perhaps even more surprisingly for MIT, which is often viewed as a highly technical university, practical application is to be the order of the day at Sloan. It is a mantra that many business schools recite but few implement. “Creating and managing great projects is the best way to learn management concepts as well as management practice, but it’s incredibly hard to do,” says Prof Schmittlein.

MIT Sloan is one of the schools that already does this best, he believes. “We do more project-based learning than any other leading school,” he says.

After 26 years at the Wharton school, most latterly as deputy dean, Prof Schmittlein is well attuned to what the US business world is thinking and he believes there are convulsive changes afoot on business leaders’ agendas. Twenty years ago the global supply chain was the all-consuming problem. Ten years ago, e-commerce was the biggest threat – and opportunity. Today, business leaders are worried about two issues, he says: sustainability and what this means for their companies, and how to compete in a “flat” world – how to form partnerships.

Visibility

These produce specific challenges for Sloan students. “It’s not a story of 28-year-olds trying to save the world. It’s a story of managing in times of cataclysmic change. It’s about what our students do and need to say when they get into these organisations. They are expected to have something to say about this.”

The new dean is already beginning to show his colours as a seasoned marketing professor. Telling the world about Sloan students and publicising the school are top of his agenda: “There is not enough visibility that there is a school of management [at MIT]. What does it mean within this distinct university? What’s great about MIT as a school of management?”

While many top business schools – Harvard and Stanford to name just two – are working hard to get other university departments, such as engineering or medicine, to work with them in offering joint courses, this is second nature to Sloan. “Our graduates are close to graduates from other departments,” explains Prof Schmittlein. “The school needs to be relevant to them at different times.” The university’s much-copied MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, in which students from all departments work together on business ideas, is perhaps the most prominent practical example.

What has helped Sloan master these relationships and its speedy curriculum changes has been its relatively small size. With about 100 faculty and 400 MBA students, it is less than half the size of Wharton or Harvard. The dean expects the number of faculty and programmes – though not the number of students on the full-time MBA programme – to grow. “We’re just above being too small and we’re not close to being too big,” as he diplomatically phrases it.

With a continued and strong focus on research, it is an agenda that is well-pitched to unite the Sloan faculty. As Prof Schmittlein puts it: “I would like us to recapture the intellectual high ground.”

Academic with a love of marketing

David Schmittlein, 52, is a thoroughbred academic. Prior to being appointed dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management in August 2007 he was deputy dean at another top US school – the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, a role he held from 2000. He also stepped in as interim dean at Wharton in 2007 in the interregnum between Patrick Harker’s departure and the arrival of Tom Robertson as the new dean.

Prof Schmittlein joined Wharton in 1980 with a PhD and M Phil in business from Columbia and a BA in maths from Brown University. A marketing professor at heart, he is known for his work estimating the impact of marketing activities. He has also served as chairman of the editorial board for Wharton School Publishing.

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