The Anti-MBA Business School

By John A. Byrne, October 20, 2010

In the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers went kaput and the economy plunged into a deep recession, Yash Gupta was scampering around the country trying to drum up support for a new business school at Johns Hopkins University. It could not have been the best time to enlist believers in yet another school that would pump out even more MBAs. After all, some critics already were pointing fingers for the collapse of the financial markets at the business schools and their graduates.

But Gupta, a life-long business educator who took the job to become dean of the B-school start-up, says the crisis gave him unusual license to rethink MBA education from scratch. “The meltdown helped us immensely because people were ready to question the orthodoxy,” says Dean Gupta. “We decided early on that we could not be a prominent business school by doing what every other school does. I don’t think I could have done that in 2006.”

The result: The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, which entered its charter class of 88 students in September, may well be the first business school for anti-MBAs. The school’s tagline, “Where business is taught with humanity in mind,” isn’t merely an advertising slogan. It’s central to Gupta’s belief that MBA education had gone off the rails and needed to get back in touch with humanity.

“WE PRODUCED MASTERS OF FINANCIAL ENGINEERING, PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T HAVE HEART AND SOUL.”

“Over the years,” he says, “I came to the conclusion that we leaned too hard on the science of business. The MBA became a degree in methodology. We produced masters of financial engineering, people who didn’t have heart and soul. I’ve been thinking for years that we were headed in the wrong direction.”

Gupta should know. When he took the job as Carey’s first permanent dean in January of 2008, he had already led three other business schools for the past 14 years. While dean at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business from 2004 to 2006, he developed an innovation-focused MBA curriculum. But running a school with entrenched faculty and a host of traditions and rituals didn’t allow him the chance to pull out a clean sheet of paper and rethink business education.

He had the benefit of doing a start-up at Johns Hopkins, world renown for its schools of medicine and international affairs. It was one of only four elite universities—Princeton, Brown and CalTech–left without a business school and a full-time MBA program. The last major university to launch a business school in the U.S. was Yale in 1976.

Everything about the school is different. The school occupies four floors in a modern skyscraper overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The building serves as the corporate headquarters for Legg Mason, the investment management firm. It is five miles away from the university’s bucolic Homewood campus, where parts of the movie, The Social Network, were filmed. The goal is to eventually move the business school there, but that may take as long as ten years.

In building a school inside an office tower, isolated from the university’s main campus, Gupta smartly leveraged the Johns Hopkins name in recruiting both faculty and students. Four of the 15 full-time, tenure-track faculty gave up endowed chairs at other universities for the chance to help Gutpa shape the culture of the school. “I couldn’t resist the Hopkins brand name,” says Christian Kim, who left Baruch College to join Carey as an assistant professor of marketing. “To me, it is a better brand than Cornell or the University of Pennsylvania. And Yash is a great marketer. I was so drawn to his vision for the school that I hardly ate when we first met over breakfast.”

Adds Federico Bandi, a finance professor who left the University of Chicago’s Booth School to teach at Carey, “I got a very good vibe from the leadership of the school. I had the impression that this would be an extremely dynamic place where things could get done quickly.” Because of the university’s reputation, Bandi thought, “this was a very low-risk enterprise. The place cannot fail.”

TEAM-TEACHING IS THE NORM FOR ALL THE CORE COURSES.

At Carey, all the core courses are team taught by two professors from different disciplines in classes that are no larger than 44 students each. Instead of courses in such basic MBA subjects as marketing and finance, Carey features integrated courses with such titles as “Managerial Decision Behavior” or “People and Markets.” Says Gupta with a certain level of pride, “We have a module on decisions being taught by a quant person and a behaviorist. We have a human expression module and it’s taught by a business person and a drama professor.”

A so-called “Innovation for Humanity” experience requires teams of students to travel to one of four countries–Rwanda, Kenya, Peru or India–for three weeks to work on pressing social issues. A “Discovery to Market” project enlists five-student teams in trying to commercialize science and technology developed in such university schools in medicine, public health, and bio-technology, as well as the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technologies Research Center in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Moreover, roughly 80% of the curriculum is required, compared with less than half at most other business schools. In the second-year, students can choose from four “verticals,” each composed of four electives in health, life sciences, energy, or environment—rather than more traditional MBA concentrations in strategy, marketing, or finance.

The school’s slick brochures even feature a highly enthusiastic endorsement from Russell Palmer, the former dean of The Wharton School. “This is the future, an incredible curriculum and opportunity,” Palmer is quoted saying. “The world needs people with broad apertures through which they can apply a business knowledge base. The Carey Business School is ahead of the pack.”

In truth, other business schools have tried out pieces of Carey’s approach over the years. Yale’s School of Management does interdisciplinary team teaching in its core classes. The University of Michigan’s Ross School makes consulting projects a core part of its MBA curriculum, though most of them are in the for-profit sector. But makes Carey truly different is putting all these different initiatives together at the same time as well as recruiting to the school largely non-traditional students who don’t want to beat a path to the typical MBA jobs.

NOT MANY STUDENTS HAIL FROM THE WORLD OF FINANCE AND FEW WANT TO END UP THERE.

Few of the MBA candidates, for example, are from the major consulting firms or from Wall Street. In the charter class, finance is not even among the top eight professional backgrounds, which include health care, government, non-profits, education, manufacturing, and technology. Some 55% of the class—far more than the typical one third–is from outside the U.S., with large contingents of students from Taiwan and China. (See My Story: From Shanghai to a Startup Business School for a profile of one Carey student).

Many of the students express a disdain for the types of finance jobs that often claim the largest percentage of MBA grads. When Jack Hirsch, a software entrepreneur from the West Coast, met with the admissions staff of the school, he made clear he had no interest at all in becoming an investment banker. “Is that okay?” he asked. Assured that it was, Hirsch applied and was accepted. Shaha AlShehail, a female entrepreneur from Saudi Arabia, was attracted by the social component of the program. She also has no ambitions to work on Wall Street or for a consulting firm. Instead, she intends to return to Saudi Arabia to launch a social enterprise.

Says student Allison Kooser, “I had a bad image of the MBA with people working 120 hours a week trying to make money on Wall Street. I think business could be more than just a bottom line.” Glenn Ketover, who once worked 100 hours a week at Lehman Brothers in New York, plans to use his Carey degree to transition to a job at an international NGO.

THE DEAN IDENTIFIES WITH THE NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS HE HAS RECRUITED.

The India-born Gupta says it was a key goal to bring in non-traditional MBA students. “I believe learning is not about looking alike,” he insists. “If you really want to believe in a new kind of program then all experiences must come to play. I’m an example of that. Nobody ever could have thought I would be a professor, never mind a dean. My mother could not even write her name. My father worked for a finance company in a clerical role. If I could contribute something from such a handicap, these people can contribute a lot more.”

Gupta grew up in Hadiadad, India, a small village about 190 miles north of New Delhi. He was youngest of eight siblings, all of who have at least a graduate degree. Gupta graduated from Panjab University in India in 1973, earned a master’s in production management a year later from Brunel University in West London and a Ph.D. in management sciences in 1976 from the University of Bradford in England. After teaching operations management, he first became a business school dean in 1992 at the University of Colorado in Denver. Seven years later, he was named dean of the University of Washington’s business school, a post he held until 2004, until moving on five years later, to become dean of USC’s Marshall School.

While the economic meltdown may have given Gupta license to build a far more innovative MBA program than would have been possible, it was no easy task to recruit students to a non-accredited school without career statistics or a strong alumni network at a time when many MBAs from long-established programs couldn’t find jobs. By April of this year, when top schools had pretty much filled most of the seats for their incoming fall classes, Carey only had 17 candidates committed to its new MBA program. “The applicant pool came in very late,” concedes Sondra Smith, director of admissions.

Many of those enrolled students applied only to the Carey School, drawn by its mission and the chance to be part of something new. A good number of other applicants had such schools as Wharton, NYU, Columbia and Maryland in their consideration set. “The real appeal was to be part of something new and something that had never been done before,” says Jarrett Bauer, who went to Villanova University for his undergraduate degree and had worked as a health care consultant.

THE CHARTER CLASS HAS AN AVERAGE GMAT OF 660 AND AN AVERAGE GPA OF 3.2

The first class of 88 students, divided into two cohorts, was culled from some 300 applicants. A quarter of the students were given partial scholarships by Carey, and five of them are on full scholarships. Nearly five percent of the class is without full-time work experience, coming direct from their undergraduate schools. The charter group has an average GMAT score of 660, and an undergraduate grade point average of 3.2, stats that put the students in a competitive arena with such business schools as the University of Maryland (average GMAT of 658), Vanderbilt University (653), and Penn State (652). “I think there may be brighter students at other schools, but the attitude and motivations here are much better,” says assistant professor Chester Chambers, who has an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School, a Ph.D. from Duke University and who had taught at Southern Methodist University. “There’s far more of a service and global component to the students.” The average age of the incoming student is 26, with 36% of the class female. The school hopes to double the incoming class to about 160 students as soon as the application pool and the quality of applicants allows.

If they do travel the less-worn MBA path away from consulting and investment banking as many here expect, many of the students are likely to seek jobs in social entrepreneurship, NGOs, health care services, pharmaceuticals, technology, environmental services, and alternative energy, predicts Phil Phan, vice dean for the school.

What does success look like? Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gupta defines success somewhat differently than many business schools. “I’m not going to tell you it’s about compensation for our students. To me, success is not quantifiable in the short run. I want our students to be able to go into organizations and to be able to exercise a new kind of management style,” he says firmly, “a style that cares deeply about people and community. Our objective is to become the model of what a future management school should look like.”