SOM core curriculum draws cautious praise

Education experts expressed praise for and some concern about the implementation of the Yale School of Management’s new core curriculum, following the recent release of the school’s plans for the new model.

During the past several years, Babson College professors Gordon Prichett and Norean Sharpe have been leading advocates for more interdisciplinary management education in the United States, which they argue will better prepare students for the challenges of the business world. While their response to the new SOM curriculum — which emphasizes more practical aspects of business management — was generally positive, the two professors said they were unsure if it will be truly sustainable.

Sharpe said that while he thinks SOM is on the right track with respect to integrating real decision-making skills into the curriculum, she foresees some potential pitfalls for the execution of its plans, which include team-teaching across disciplines.

“Implementing the curriculum in a way that is still time- and cost-effective will certainly be a challenge,” Sharpe said. “Putting several professors in a room together to teach a class takes time away from all of them when most likely none of them individually will be teaching longer than 20 minutes. You also have to take into account how you’re going to balance that professor’s time in the classroom with his time for research and development.”

But SOM Dean Joel Podolny said he thinks integrating time devoted to research and teaching is a challenge in any curriculum.

“Obviously, in the short run, the faculty involved in the new core will need to put more time than in the past to developing curricular materials, but we are going to be building an infrastructure to assist them in this activity,” Podolny said in an e-mail.

SOM professor Judith Chevalier said she does not foresee long-term problems in implementing the new curriculum.

“There will be some startup cost, of course, but I think on the whole the core will be reasonably effective thereafter,” Chevalier said. “These kind of dramatic changes are always associated with some cost, but in the long run they shouldn’t be dramatically harder to implement than our current curriculum.”

Chevalier also said she thinks it will be to the professors’ advantage to move between courses and interact with a wider spectrum of students than they normally would. She said that more scope for a single faculty member to move across three or four sections would also maintain a consistency of experience.

Sharpe and Prichett said they also shared a concern that analytical and ethical judgment skills, though addressed in the new curriculum plans, might not be emphasized as much in practice.

“Analytical skills and statistics are the real building blocks for decision-making, and it’s so easy to let those skills take a backseat to management skills,” Sharpe said.

But Podolny said there will be no change in the analytical skills provided in the curriculum, only the context in which those skills were presented.

“Analytical skills are no less central in the new curriculum than in the one currently offered,” Podolny said. “The major difference is that the presentation of the analytical tools and frameworks will be contextually grounded in the challenges of management to a greater degree than in the past.”

Prichett said he was particularly concerned that the language describing the new curriculum’s inclusion of ethical issues said it merely “afford[s] the opportunity” for discussion instead of actively promoting it.

Concerning the new core’s treatment of ethical issues, Podolny said he thinks the multidisciplinary courses offered in the Organizational Perspectives module of the new curriculum will do a better job teaching ethics in the context of managerial relationships.

SOM student body representative Josh Fried SOM ’07 said the faculty’s prominent role in developing new teaching materials made him feel confident that aspects of the curriculum like quantitative analysis and ethical concerns would not be overlooked.

“A lot of the material taught in the new curriculum will be generated by our professors, and consequently I think they’ll put a lot of time and effort into the values that our school champions, like accountability and ethical issues,” Fried said. “It’s not like the curriculum will only be using Harvard cases — which are built purely around different problems in management education but sometimes avoid moral issues — so the faculty will be able to incorporate those things as they see fit.”

Assessment of the new educational program by peers from outside Yale may also prove a challenge, Prichett said.

“When you define your own assessment standards, the faculty can sometimes feel it’s an invasive process,” Prichett said. “At the same time, you need to make sure what you’re doing is working.”

Podolny said he and the SOM faculty are aware of the need for rigorous assessment and have discussed this topic frequently throughout the curriculum review.

“As we develop materials, we will also be identifying and developing assessment tools,” Podolny said. “At the time of our next AACSB accreditation, I am confident that the review panel will be impressed by our commitment to developing the analytical skills that are understood to be an essential part of an MBA.”

But Chevalier said the SOM continues to discuss what form assessments will take.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion of mechanisms for assessment, and an assessment committee has been redesigning the way we assess students and they assess us,” she said. “There’s an interesting question of short-run versus long-run assessment, but it’s certainly a part of the plan that we take very seriously.”

Prichett said he believes a main assumption behind the SOM’s new curriculum is that applicants to the school will have had a strong liberal arts background, but Chevalier said she doesn’t see that as a problem.

“I can’t imagine there’s a student from a particular background that would need or want a more integrated management education more than another student,” she said.

Regardless of the background of students attracted by the new curriculum, Podolny said, he believes the new core will attract the kind of students that SOM ideally seeks — those who embody the school’s mission of becoming leaders for business and society.

Fried said Podolny has been explicit in faculty discussions, maintaining that even under the new curriculum model, students will not leave the SOM without knowing basic management concepts like discounted cash flows. He said that while he did not believe the SOM’s intention was to purposely draw more students of a certain demographic, undergraduates from a liberal arts background might find this new model more attractive.

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