WisBusiness: UW biz school rolls out revamped MBA program

By Brian E. Clark

Students entering the UW-Madison School of Business MBA program in September will encounter a revamped curriculum that has thrown off its generalist past to concentrate on 14 specific career tracks.

The change is the brainchild of Rhinelander native Michael Knetter, who took over as dean of the business school two years ago.

Knetter, 44, received his undergraduate degree from UW-La Crosse and his doctorate in economics from Stanford. He was assistant dean for the MBA program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business before moving to Madison. He also has served on the Council of Economic Advisors in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

While not bad, Knetter said he quickly learned after his arrival that the MBA program was the weak link in an overall strong business school.

“The undergraduate program was on the cusp of the top 10, if not in the top 10, and faculty research occupied a similar standing among business schools nationwide,” he said recently.

“In addition, the executive education program was growing, garnering good reviews and “gaining traction,” he said.

(And a recent study by Bloomberg helped the school’s prestige. It showed that Wisconsin tied Harvard for first place in educating the most chief executive officers of companies included in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.)

But the thing that people associate most with business schools, the MBA program, was an area that was underperforming, he said.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal failed to include Wisconsin in the top 50 MBA programs – an embarrassment for the university. Moreover, the school wasn’t attracting the caliber of students Knetter wanted. Faculty members weren’t satisfied with the curriculum and graduating students weren’t happy with job prospects.

It was clear that some changes were needed, he said.

After an internal review, Knetter and others decided the program’s extreme flexibility was having a negative effect on the prospects of graduating students.

“Fortunately, within the master’s program we had there was a wide variation in the student satisfaction and placement outcomes,” he continued.

Kevin Coonan, 26, and a second-year MBA student, said he is pleased with the change.

“It’s a move in the right direction,” said Coonan, who is working this summer for Rayovac in Dixon, Ill.

“It’s good to be in a focused center,” said Coonan, whose specialty is manufacturing and technology management. “It will give us a better education, and ultimately help us in finding jobs when we graduate.”

Knetter said the school had a top 25 MBA program “living within its entire set of offerings. When you started to drill down, you could find it.”

The successful offerings focused on career specializations, so Knetter, with the unanimous support of the faculty, abandoned the general management and traditional major MBA tracks.

In addition to faculty support, alumni have responded by backing the changes with their checkbooks, giving and pledging more than $35 million to school.

Marketing alumnus Signe Ostby and her husband, Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, gave $6.4 million to start the Center for Brand and Product Management – the first program of its kind in the country.

Albert “Ab” Nicholas donated a like amount to endow the school’s Applied Corporate Finance program. In addition, the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill. has given $20 million toward a $40 million addition to Grainger Hall.

Knetter said the addition will eventually house the MBA program and give the centers more space so they can flourish. Knetter said he, faculty and alumni like the new program because it provides a focused, career-oriented experience, especially in the second year.

“They will start with general management and then quickly become more focused on the areas in which they want to become experts,” he said.

“We’ve put our chips in that basket and we’re very comfortable with our decision,” he said.

Employers, the end judge of the MBA students, also have told Knetter they like the new model because it shows students’ commitment to their careers is clearly established.

The dean said the school’s ultimate desire is to establish endowed “centers of expertise” around each career specialization because they are the most likely to deliver quality, specialized programs to students.

To date, nine of the 14 career specializations are embedded in endowed centers. Students in these centers have faculty and staff with interest in the field.

Each center has its own executive advisory board, applied curriculum as well as dedicated work and meeting space. Knetter said the centers have excellent brand recognition in their industries. The endowed centers are:

  • Bolz Center for Arts Administration.
  • Center for Product Management.
  • Center for Real Estate.
  • Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Research.
  • Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management.
  • Stephen L. Hawk Center for Applied Security Analysis.
  • Nicholas Center for Applied Corporate Finance.
  • A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research.
  • Wienert Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Based on our experience, it’s a very risky proposition for someone to go back for an MBA if you don’t know why you are doing it,” he said.

“We want students who know what they want to do,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to be students’ psychologists. We’re a public university.

“But we do have the resources to teach you a hell of a lot about the area you want to be in. And we just want to get on with that.”

For more information on the UW-Madison MBA program, go to www.bus.wisc.edu.