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Richard Schmalensee, dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has an interesting employment contract. Although he is boss of the Sloan school, his professorship is awarded jointly by the business school and MIT’s school of economics. For him, working closely with the rest of the university makes perfect sense.

“We’re part of an incredible university,” he says. “How dumb would we be not to take advantage of that?”

MIT has been one of the pioneers in persuading different disciplines to work together, with impetus from the president at the top and the students on the ground. The university’s $50k entrepreneurship competition, for example, has been a university-wide competition since its inception 16 years ago.

But for decades MIT has been a lone voice in promoting this interdisciplinary approach. Most business schools have spent the past 20 years fighting for autonomy from the main university, often so they could control their own funds. In recent years, however, there has been a sea change.

From Harvard and Stanford downwards, business schools are no longer eschewing contact with their counterparts in philosophy or history. Increasingly business schools are looking to their home universities to provide the expertise they themselves lack.

At the heart of the issue is the increasingly complex world of business, says Anthony Hopwood, dean of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in the UK. Twenty years ago managers did not need to know about science and technology, but now these subjects permeate every aspect of business. A modern business school has to have access to knowhow on science, regulation, politics and government, he says. “Today MBAs need seamless access in a joined-up world.”

It is a view that echoes along the corridors of many of the top business schools.

“You can’t have a strong business school without a strong arts and science department,” says Glen Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School in New York. He is working to increase the number of joint academic appointments with other schools in the university and encouraging his faculty to conduct joint research with other departments.

“I like to see research aimed at problems, not disciplines . . . One of the reasons that I am passionate about this is that if you want a university to come closer to the outside world, you need to come closer to other departments.”

Even Harvard Business School, renowned as the most aloof of institutions, is increasing its ties with other university departments. As well as offering joint degrees with the Kennedy School of Government and the Law School, last autumn it began a combined degree in business and medicine.

It has also developed programmes with Harvard’s school of education and is setting up a healthcare initiative at the business school.

Under Harvard president Larry Summers, the business school expects this kind of link to grow, especially as there are plans to relocate the schools of education and public health close to the business school and build a major science centre locally.

The alarm bells are also sounding at stand-alone business schools, which are increasingly developing links with outside organisations.

Participants on the MBA programme at London Business School, for example, can also enrol on elective courses at University College London, which specialises in the arts, technology and entrepreneurship. (The two schools are part of the University of London, though they are on separate sites and have separate governance.) Last December LBS and UCL also jointly appointed a visiting professor in entrepreneurship.

In Paris, the grande école HEC has also realised the need to establish links with non-business schools, says dean Bernard Ramanantsoa. They now have links with the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the top French engineering schools, and Université Paris Sud, a vast university specialising in science, law, medicine and technology.

Individual faculty members from all three institutions teach on each other’s programmes – but that is the easy part, says Prof Ramanantsoa. More difficult, working across different institutions, is setting up joint research centres in areas such as economics and entrepreneurship.

At Columbia, Prof Hubbard is coming at the problem from a different angle, focusing first on research. He is persuading research centres at the business school to put their money behind interdisciplinary research and into research with companies. “We need integrative research to get integrative teaching,” he says. “We need more integrated teaching on the MBA.”

While joint teaching and research bring expertise from other departments into the business school, some business schools have gone even further and begun teaching management to non-management students. At Stanford, for example, 23 of the elective courses offered by the business school are now “cross-listed”, meaning that enrolled students from other parts of the university earn credits towards non-business graduate degrees.

Next summer the school will go one step further by teaching a four-week management course for graduate students from non-business disciplines. The programme, based on Stanford’s executive programmes, is being funded by deans from the other schools on the Stanford campus as well as the president’s office. If the programme is successful the university may look to fundraising as a way of supporting the programme financially.

“The engagement between the business school and the university will be an increasing story,” says Robert Joss, dean of the graduate business school at Stanford. “These issues of management are critical everywhere.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the school that has reached out further into the university is the Sloan school. The school has opened enrolment this autumn for engineering undergraduate students at MIT who want to study for a minor in management. Applications have been capped at 100 students for the first year.

“If you talk to people who hire engineers they say the first promotion is where they slip up, because they don’t understand the organisation,” says Prof Schmalensee. “This [programme] prepares them for their first promotion and it gives them a conceptual framework.”

When the marketing guy talks to them, says Prof Schmalensee, at least they will know to listen.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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