Two years ago, the Yale School of Management reinvented itself.
Old courses went out the window, faculty rewrote the playbook and dean Joel Podolny called himself “honored to be part of a community that has shown the resolve to take the lead” in changing the field of business education. Now Podolny is gone — headed to Apple Inc. in California. But his school — and the educational philosophy he helped shape — remains.
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Since 2006, Yale’s School of Management has defined itself through its curriculum — an innovative blend of interdisciplinary, pragmatic programming coupled with a more traditional MBA education. The fate of the curriculum will largely determine the historical legacy of its now-former dean, Joel Podolny, who spearheaded the program’s implementation and now leaves it after barely two years.
There are indications that the school will not change course in the wake of Podolny’s exit. Incoming dean and management professor Sharon Oster had a significant role in shaping the curriculum, launched in 2006.
“No executive wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘I’m going to do finance today,’ so it doesn’t make sense for students to sit in a finance class and learn to crunch numbers absent of any context,” Oster said in a September 2006 release announcing the new curriculum. “We are teaching them in a way that’s relevant in the real world.”
SOM professors interviewed said they believe Oster will uphold the mission and goals of the new curriculum.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to go back after putting in all that hard work,” marketing professor K. Sudhir said.
Indeed, to do so would be to reverse the most formative period in SOM’s history in years.
Prior to Podolny’s arrival from Harvard in July 2005, SOM was stagnant in business school rankings. In trying to attract a high-profile pool of business school applicants, SOM drifted from its original ideal of instilling graduates with a sense of public duty. But the school could not compete with top-flight competitors, such as Harvard Business School and the Wharton School, which offered traditional course offerings suited to large schools. Yale — with an average class size of 220 MBAs — lacked the resources to offer such options.
Students and faculty alike agreed that the answer lay in curricular reform, but could not come to consensus on what exactly that reform would mean. Podolny’s arrival brought fresh energy to the initiative. Immediately after his appointment, the new dean held faculty meetings to lay the groundwork for the overhaul.
Central to these early discussions was turning SOM’s small size into an advantage. After seeking input from faculty, students, alumni and recruiters, a steering committee lead by finance professor Jake Thomas proposed a new, interdisciplinary core curriculum whose mission was to train students to analyze problems from multiple perspectives. The model would capitalize on SOM’s size by encouraging the close-knit faculty community to collaborate on the content for the interdisciplinary courses.
Marco Guillen MA ’89 MPhil ’90 GRD ’92, professor of international management at Wharton and a personal friend of Podolny, said SOM’s innovative proposal addressed students’ concerns that a traditional management education was not relevant in the modern business world.
“By the late nineties, recruiters wanted managers and students themselves wanted to become managers,” Guillen said. “[The new curriculum] would be about what managers needed.”
Despite the increased workload the new curriculum would bring, the faculty unanimously voted for the change in March 2006. A 2008 case study on the curriculum produced by Harvard Business School reproduced SOM marketing professor Ravi Dhar’s remarks to Podolny following the meeting.
“Congratulations. I guess the reputation of the school is now riding on this,” he told the dean. “And, of course, your reputation is really riding on this.”
With the faculty’s approval, Podolny moved swiftly to hammer out specifics with a team of senior faculty. Five months later, SOM had a new take on management education.
Barry Nalebuff, professor of management at SOM, recalled the pressure on the SOM faculty at the time, but added that fear of failure proved a greater motivator than the constraints of time.
“To me, it’s a miracle we pulled it off the first year,” Nalebuff said.
SOM’s sweeping overhaul soon bore fruit. The class of 2007 — the school’s first under the new curriculum — posted a 100 percent job offer rate for investment banking interns, a first for SOM in its 34-year history. Coupled with SOM’s subsequent rise in the rankings, the curriculum soon drew the attention of prominent business schools across the country.
“Application rates and alumni donations had increased in the two years following its announcement,” the HBS case reads. “The early feedback indicated that recruiters felt SOM students were stronger under the new curriculum.”
David Garvin, professor of business administration at Harvard and coauthor of the study, said SOM’s degree of integration across functions distinguished the school from its peers. Following the curricular overhaul at Yale, business schools nationwide buzzed with talk of the new program.
“This is something that people in the world of business schools talked about a lot,” said David Kreps, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “This was Joel’s baby. This had Joel’s handwriting all over it.”
Despite the immediate success of the curriculum — as evidenced by graduate placement rates — Garvin warned against drawing conclusions too early.
“Although placement rates [for SOM] have improved,” Garvin said, “will progression through the [managerial] hierarchy also improve? We won’t know until 10 or 20 years later.”
And neither will Podolny. In August 2007, he acknowledged the risk that without constant vigilance, SOM’s curriculum could “backslide” into “comfortable old functional disciplinary habits.”
“We have found that the somewhat instinctive tendency to revert to disciplinary affinities and approaches is still present,” he wrote in an August 2007 research paper analyzing SOM’s new curriculum. “To fully establish and incorporate a cultural shift of the magnitude of our new multidisciplinary focus will likely take several years and several rounds of correction and adjustment.”
The “rounds of correction and adjustment” will now fall to Oster — who has been at SOM for 26 years. Podolny lasted just three.