Financial Times business writer John Authers poses in front of St. Paul's Chapel (L) at Columbia University in New York, Thursday March 15, 2001. sb/Photo by Shawn Baldwin
The pursuit of knowledge: John Authers at Columbia in 2001

An MBA is not what it used to be. That is because business schools know a thing or two about marketing and have adjusted their offerings to meet changes in demand. Change is necessary. But it is still sad.

A few months ago Columbia Business School announced big changes to its “core” – the group of classes that everyone has to take if they want a Columbia MBA. The school revises its curriculum every three years, and the net result over the years has been a steady diminution in compulsory content, in favour of allowing students to make their own choices.

It has also recently overhauled its brand, with a glossy video and a new slogan: “At the centre of business”. After the financial crisis, in an environment where all schools have to work harder to show their relevance, associate dean for marketing Iris Henries says Columbia is “retelling its story” and demonstrating the advantages that come from its peerless access and its Manhattan location.

I care about Columbia because it is my alma mater. I started my MBA there in 1999, just as the internet boom was coming to a head. The compulsory core that I and my contemporaries had to endure has now been dramatically reduced.

Starting in 1999, students went through a week-long “math camp” before the MBA course started. This was a great bonding experience, but has now been discontinued.

Subsequently, there were so many compulsory classes that students only had time for one optional class before leaving for internships, midway through their MBA. Now students have time for four optional classes.

Gita Johar, senior vice dean for curriculum, points out that Columbia still has a bigger compulsory core than many schools. It has also worked hard to add elements that were not there before.

Back in 1999, it was already essential to work in groups. This was arguably a crucial skill that Columbia taught, particularly compared with those schools that encourage students to compete against each other by allocating much of their grade to their participation in class. All casework would be done in groups of five, who would sit huddled around laptops at the big tables in the library.

This process has since been codified and intensified. Now, everyone completes a self-awareness exercise, with all group members having to fill out a 360-degree evaluation of all the others. They then talk to a coach about their feedback. In terms of the personal skills needed to find and keep a job, this is probably more useful than the disciplines that have been shed from the core.

The school has also worked to make the core more obviously relevant. A compulsory course in decision models has been abandoned, to be replaced by an emphasis on statistics and “big data”. Marketing is split into two separate classes on “customer centricity” and is tied into the demands on entrepreneurs to understand their customers.

Meanwhile, students demanded more opportunity to take specialised classes before the mid-MBA break. For example, those who want an internship in real estate can now take a couple of classes on the subject in their first year and demonstrate their commitment to recruiters.

Managerial negotiations, an invaluable skill in the workplace, is also popular among students before leaving for their internship. Students are also availing themselves of a new option in “global immersion” – the chance to do intensive study of a country (even Cuba has been on the list), and then visit it. So the new shape of the MBA has much to recommend it in an era when getting a job is difficult.

In 1999 the average student felt confident (probably overconfident) of getting a job, and weekly “happy hours” were regularly sponsored by several different recruiters. Each week there would be a different happy hour T-shirt with a different corporate logo on the back.

In that environment, the school could tell students what they needed to know and students could use their credentials to look for a job. Now it is far less simple.

However, there are still reasons for regret. First, is student choice a good idea? At Columbia, there is an internal market for elective courses. Students have a notional number of points with which to “bid” for optional courses. Back in 2000, classes that could be entered without any points at all, because they were undersubscribed, included emerging markets and decision-making – a course that looked at the experimental psychology that underpins the discipline now known as behavioural finance. Meanwhile, courses that were prohibitively expensive – in terms of bidding points – included “valuation of internet companies”.

Based on that sample, there is a good investment model to be built out of betting against the tastes of MBA students. In 2000 internet start-ups would have been a terrible investment, while emerging markets and behavioural finance proved great ways to make money for the next decade.

As for the core, students disliked taking operations management, a full-term class on the science behind running companies and making factories or supply chains work more efficiently. It was widely disliked, as few Columbia students aspired to run production lines for Toyota. But it was fascinating. I probably learnt more in this class than in any other.

Macroeconomics was also deeply resented. This was not because students already knew their economics, as there was an exam that allowed those who had studied the subject as undergraduates to opt out of it. Rather, it was difficult, and at the time the emphasis on central banking did not seem very important. Some students threw away their notes straight after the final exam.

That has changed. Nowadays, macro factors, and central bank policy, drive markets. Everyone in the world of finance needs an opinion on the Federal Reserve. And those who threw away their notes might regret it, as Columbia’s macroeconomics professor at the time was a young man who had just finished his doctorate at Princeton. He had written many papers on monetary policy with the head of Princeton’s economic faculty at the time, one Ben Bernanke. Notes on the future Fed chairman’s emerging thoughts about monetary policy might have come in very, very useful over the decade that followed.

I do, therefore, feel a sense of loss in the core. Macro- and microeconomics have both been reduced from a full semester to a half-semester, as has statistics and operations management. Cost accounting, which brought with it wonderful insights on exactly how hard it is to tell how profitably a company is operating, is no longer its own half-term course, but has been folded into financial accounting.

As a rule, it was those demanding classes that seemed least interesting beforehand that tended to be most revelatory and useful.

Ultimately, education cannot be a democracy. Students must be told by their teachers what they need to know. That is part of the value of an MBA, or any other worthwhile qualification: someone else has set the requirements. But such ideas are increasingly incompatible with the changing nature of business education and the job of setting a curriculum grows ever harder.

I do not doubt that Columbia is right to make these changes and to enhance its brand identity to stress the advantages of being based in Manhattan. This will keep the school near the top of the league tables, and help prepare its students for success in today’s different and difficult job market. But I still find it a little sad.

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