The future of the MBA relies on reversing the biggest change to the degree in recent history.
Georgette Phillips, dean of Lehigh Business School in Pennsylvania, US, thinks that change is the demise of the generalist. The rise of specialized masters programs has directed people to go after specific educational pursuits, rather than the broad-based generalist approach to learning.
“I think it’s kind of a shame,” says Georgette. “People are coming in for a very specific purpose, and I think you lose something in that.”
You lose the excitement of discovery, she thinks. The example she gives is in bygone days you used to go to the library if you needed a book, you’d get your book off the shelf and in the process dip into the book next to yours, the one next to that, and so on.
That discovery excited her; if you approach graduate education with a narrow focus, you don’t get that.
“If you never have to take a class that is outside of what you have determined to be what you’re interested in, you’ll never discover new things,” she says.
Practicing what you preach
Georgette graduated with a doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1985. She knew she wanted to be in academia but wasn’t convinced being a law school professor held the same weight in her mind as something more business oriented.
She started teaching at the Wharton School, and became the David B. Ford professor and chairwoman of the real estate department—a passion of hers—as well as teaching law at the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) law school.
She would jump back and forth between the two schools during her time at UPenn.
“I practiced a bit of what I preach, because when I went to law school, I didn’t see that as the end,” she explains. “There was something else to learn here.”
Her passion for real estate she learned through the lens of law and business—she wasn’t siloed.
“This has been a string through almost my entire academic and professional life,” she says, “looking at cities and real estate and the built environment, I’ve just looked at it from many perspectives.”
Why MBAs should be open minded
By the time you get to your graduate degree you’ve already closed a lot of doors. That’s okay, Georgette says, as long as you take a holistic approach to grad school.
“That’s the beauty of the MBA as opposed to specialized master’s programs, you get to take a broad look.”
She advises prospective MBAs to think long and hard about their strengths and weaknesses. You should be open to further developing the former and growing your competence in the latter.
“What in your toolkit that you’re bringing to business school do you especially want to hone and refine?” she asks.
“Before you step on campus, think about things you do well but want to do better, and be honest with yourself, and say this is something I don’t do well but I recognize I need to do it better.
“Keep them both in your mind. A lot of times people either dwell on their assets or their liabilities, and you will lose out on so much of your education if you prioritise just what you’re good at.”
A broad MBA perspective
Georgette’s way of thinking extends to the 1-MBA program—Lehigh College of Business’s one-year MBA program—which embraces the shared value model, recognizing the importance of all stakeholders in business decisions.
“If you’re presented with a problem, it’s not a HR problem, finance, or accounting, it’s a problem. So, the ability to see the same situation through the many different lenses of the several stakeholders that are affected puts our students in a great position for leadership,” she explains.
A focus on societal shifts is also a hallmark of the 1-MBA program. Students look at business in a global context, and how it’s affected by social, environmental, and political movements.
“What happens around the world matters to our business, and you’ve got to understand the context in which you will be conducting your professional life.”
The longer, winter semester on the one-year program allows students to deep dive into these issues, Georgette adds. A humanities approach pushes them to think about a problem, not just react to it.
Students who can’t commit to the on-campus program can opt for Lehigh’s flagship, part-time Flex MBA, which has the option of on-campus or online study.
Online students are in the same class as those on campus. It’s the same experience, the same curriculum, Georgette explains.
The future of the MBA
As educators and business schools, you have to think about what your value proposition is for quitting a job, (potentially) moving to a new city, and in the case of the two-year MBA, two years out of the workforce.
For the MBA to remain extant, it has to be more than networking, thinks Georgette. Notwithstanding the importance of networking on an MBA, business schools need to do more.
In the US, schools shouldn’t feel obliged to run a two-year program. They need to think about how they can best deliver value to students.
Lehigh is only into it’s third cohort of the 1-MBA. It’s a young program, admits Georgette, and though the one-year decision was a bold move when it launched in 2017, it was a conscious decision, liberally borrowed from “our neighbours across the pond”, the dominant one-year method favorable in Europe.
Georgette acknowledges that they weren’t able to make the value proposition of the second lost year of employment and the added cost of attending school—the value though, is in the rigorous, holistic education.
People are all doom and gloom about the future of the MBA, Georgette laments. But she has other ideas.
“I am absolutely bullish [about it], because there is still a place in our society for people to get this broad-based business education. There has to be.”
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