Joel Podolny, the dean of the Yale School of Management, announced Wednesday that he will leave Yale at the end of the calendar year to assume an executive position at Apple Inc. in California.

Podolny, who is widely credited with transforming SOM’s curriculum and building the school’s reputation, will assume his post as the first-ever vice president and dean of Apple University. His unexpected resignation comes as SOM continues to implement broad institutional changes, many of which were initiated by Podolny himself.

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Veteran SOM professor Sharon Oster, who has taught at the school since 1982, will serve as dean for an indeterminate time period, University President Richard Levin said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. Still, she is expected to serve out much of the remainder of Podolny’s term, which began in 2005 and is set to expire in 2010.

Podolny, an expert in economic sociology who worked at Harvard before Yale, made curricular development the hallmark of his deanship. Although he was only 39 when he began his tenure, Podolny oversaw the implementation of a new curriculum that replaced narrower, traditional courses with broader, interdisciplinary ones.

Under Podolny’s stewardship, applications to the school grew by more than 50 percent and the ranks of full-time faculty by 20 percent. He helped raise more than $170 million for the school, whose ambitious expansion plans are part of a $300-million capital campaign.

But as the school prepares to shift campuses, his departure has raised questions about the continued ascent of SOM.

In interviews with the News, Oster and Podolny both emphasized that Podolny’s departure would not disrupt the school’s momentum.

“We had begun to lose a little of our passion in the years before Joel came,” Oster said, “and one of the things he did was remind us of that passion. I want to continue to push people in that same direction.”

In some ways, the move to Apple’s west-coast campus is a homecoming for Podolny, who taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business from 1991 to 2002. An Apple spokesman would not describe the company’s plans for Apple University, but company insiders not authorized to speak for Apple said that Podolny’s work will focus on executive education within the company.

Other Silicon Valley firms have similar programs that offer continuing education for employees, including Pixar Animation Studios, where Apple chief Steve Jobs was formerly CEO.

Podolny said Wednesday that he has received multiple offers for other business school deanships — and even some university presidencies — in recent years. But Podolny, long seen as a rising star in management education, said he would have left for no other academic position at any school. Still, the Apple opportunity was unique — it allows him to work in the private sector for the first time.

“I’ve been in school since kindergarten,” Podolny said, “So this is really a new and very exciting opportunity.”

Apple left the exact timing of Podolny’s appointment up to the dean, who said he wanted to step down early enough in the term to allow for a steady transition well ahead of admissions season.

“Honestly, when Apple first called,” he said, “my first thought was ‘I wish you guys would call me five years from now.’”

Ellis Jones SOM ’79, chair of SOM’s Board of Advisers and CEO of Wasserstein & Company, said Wednesday that Podolny’s departure, though unexpected, is a reflection of the dean’s stature.

“Steve Jobs would not have gone after him if he were not the talent that he is,” Jones said. “Joel is a sophisticated guy, and I know he would not have taken this job if it weren’t critical to Apple’s mission.”

Apple’s stock gained more than five percent in Wednesday’s trading, though analysts said it was more likely connected with Tuesday’s strong earnings report than Podolny’s appointment.

— Isaac Arnsdorf contributed reporting.