Assessing Undergraduate Business Education: Interviews With 4 Leaders

April 14, 2011

Are undergraduate business programs as coherent and rigorous as they should be? Following are excerpts from interviews with four leaders on the front lines.

Faye W. Gilbert, dean of Radford University's College of Business and Economics:

Q. How would you define an excellent business education?

A. It's important that students get a chance to try different situations, problems, challenges, resolve them, fail, and succeed. They need a chance to apply their skills when they enter careers with companies and organizations—more confident, but also more humble. The tagline we have developed here in the last two and a half years is, "Experience business—actively, globally, entrepreneurially." And I do believe we are focused on enriching that.

Q. I've spoken with several Radford business students who say they work hard and they've loved their education here, but I've also talked with a few who say, almost as a matter of pride, that they go to class as little as they can. Is something wrong with the basic design of undergraduate business instruction if it's possible to skate by like that?

A. At any institution you'll find students who try to skate by. If you set the bar at 2.0 to graduate, you'll find someone who asks, Won't a 1.96 do? But sometimes for those students as well, they do complete college. They open businesses. They go to work. For some students, college coursework is just not their cup of tea. Years ago, I used to think that we should take a page from some other countries and require students after high school to do something else for a couple of years, so they come to college more mature.

Q. How do you and your faculty members know if you're delivering the kind of education you want to deliver? How useful have you found the "assurance of learning" framework promoted by the major business accreditor?

A. It's scary, but it's a healthy challenge. It's a challenge to define the learning outcomes that you as a faculty really think are important, how you're going to measure those outcomes, and, based on the measurement of those outcomes, what you're going to change in terms of pedagogy, curriculum, and your general approach. It's been a long time coming, but the benefit of the AACSB [the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the accreditor] is in this whole community of people who are all trying to work through a continuous process of improvement—not being satisfied with the way we did things 10 years ago, but to have methods in place that help you ask the questions, provide evidence to inform those issues, and to make changes when needed.

Q. What kinds of changes have you made in the last year?

A. As a faculty, we met and defined analytical skills as one of the most important things we wanted to have an impact on. One specific analytic skill is the time value of money. We want every single student who graduates from this program to be able to make decisions based upon the time value of money. We then set out to measure where we're introducing the time value of money, where they're using the concept, and where we're assessing their skills.

We've come up with a concept that we call minicases. It's not like a Harvard business case, which has its place. Minicases are short paragraphs focused on one thing. We're giving them a 10-minute response time. In Accounting 212, we're beginning to introduce the time value of money, which is not a course where it's historically been taught.

Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce:

Q. Your program is consistently ranked in the top three, and you have an extremely high job-placement rate. But are you confident that your students are not just going through the motions, that they're getting as much out of this experience as they could?

A. Yes, I am. High-quality class participation is expected and graded in all of our courses. Students have to read the cases in advance and be prepared to discuss them when they walk in the door. For example, in my class—which I team-teach with two other faculty members, so there are usually three of us in the room—we carefully assess class participation every day. And on many of those days, we have 100-percent participation. Now some students will participate, shall we say, with a higher level of quality and impact. But still, they're all engaged, they're all involved.

Q. How do you earn tenure here? What's in place here to reward high-quality teaching, as opposed to high-profile research?

A. The model we have here is incredibly balanced. We have an annual review-and-planning process for all of our faculty. They complete a detailed report that looks at their teaching, their research, and their service. They write about their goals from the previous year and how they did on them. We have a peer-based system, so everyone within the same academic area reads everyone else's report. And then we have a meeting that usually takes a full day for each of the academic areas that I and a senior associate dean attend. One by one, everybody leaves the room and we talk about them and their report. They get a memo with peer feedback, and then their area coordinator and I meet with them to discuss their progress.

That annual review process is done whether you're a brand-new assistant professor, a rookie, or whether you're the most senior tenured and chaired person on the faculty. It's very important in terms of creating norms and encouraging faculty to be tremendous on all dimensions.

Q. A couple of dozen undergraduate business programs have developed integrated course frameworks, which encourage students to work simultaneously on concepts from accounting, finance, management, and marketing. But almost none of those other frameworks are as elaborate as UVa's. Your integrated course structure covers the entire junior year, and you usually have at least three faculty members in each classroom. (A more typical model is the one at Ohio University, which lasts for only one quarter and generally involves just one professor in the classroom at a time.) Why haven't more programs imitated the UVa system?

A. There's lots of interest out there. But it's difficult. The relatively small character of our program provides us with certain advantages. We're able to implement a highly integrated, team-taught, collaborative environment because of the community and because of the way we deal with our students. And we're able to manage it. If you're dealing with 1,000 students in a class, it's much less possible.

When we implemented this, in 1999, the way we presented it to the faculty—obviously it was going to be a huge shift in the way we did our teaching. At the time we had eight sections in our old core, and we sold the faculty on the idea we'd experiment with by putting a team around just two of the eight sections. What happened was interesting. About six weeks into the semester, we started to hear that the students who weren't in the two ICE [Integrated Course Experience] blocks started going to their faculty and said, Why aren't we getting that curriculum? It was so clear to even some of the naysayers in the room that it was working. In October we had a faculty meeting and decided to go full-steam with the model beginning in the spring.

Hugh Sherman, dean of the Ohio University College of Business:

Q. I've spoken with a few students here, especially marketing and management majors, who say that some of their tests and assignments seem unreasonably easy. Two students double-majoring in marketing and finance told me that they spend vastly more time on their finance courses than on marketing.

A. That's obviously a concern. But remember that the majors are a small part of what the students here do. For any business school, there's an exhaustive core curriculum. Every student has to take accounting, finance, operations, analytics. I can't believe that you couldn't take any student from any major around the university who wouldn't say that a few of their courses have been easy. I would argue that business is highly rigorous, and that's partly because of the quantitative courses that are required of every student, even if they don't have that bent.

Q. Why have you recently begun to encourage business students at Ohio to double-major?

A. Our recruiters have told us that they really want students who are not just focused on one discipline. They want students to have a broader interdisciplinary background within business. And we've been very successful at this. More than 60 percent of our students double-major. The recruiters love it, because they think our students gain a more holistic view of business problems.

Q. Do you believe the general-education courses at Ohio give your business students a solid preparation? Some students have told me that they valued those courses, and others have said they were bored.

A. Right now the students sometimes don't see the value in the kinds of analytical and quantitative skills that they can gain from their general-education courses. It may be that universities don't effectively communicate to students about what they can gain. We've been talking to our school of communication about developing a new business-oriented communication course when we move to a semester system, a year from now. So there will be problems and assignments that fit what a business student needs, and the students will see the application.

We've also worked with the math department to develop a new quantitative-analysis course that can be good for a broad range of business students. It will be application-oriented, so students will be prepared for the kinds of things they'll face when they come to the business school.

Leonard A. Schlesinger, president of Babson College:

Q. You're often quoted as saying that "the half-life of a functional management curriculum is 10 years." In other words, the business world changes so rapidly that business schools need to constantly reorganize the material they teach.

A. These days, I say that the half-life is five years. It's a function of the pace of technological change and globalization. If you look at the Fortune 25 from 2000 and look at it again in 2010­—over 10 years, 13 of the companies are no longer on the list. They've been transacted out of business, or they've been beaten by entrepreneurs. So on the functional knowledge, there needs to be a process of continual refreshing. Everything in the core business curriculum needs to have a sell-by date, like the produce department at Whole Foods. There needs to be a continual examination of the nature and the appropriateness of the things we're teaching in the classroom, in light of what's going on out in the world.

Q. But is there a danger that a certain kind of rigor will be lost if new ideas are constantly cycled in and out of the curriculum?

A. Remember that 50 percent of our curriculum is in the arts and sciences. There are certain kinds of timeless learning—history and society, as we call it here—that dramatically extend the skill sets of the students we graduate.

Q. What do you think when you see national survey data that suggest that business students study less than others?

A. I can only speak from my experience here. You're not going to find that with our students. We have a rigorous business curriculum and a set of cocurricular activities that focus on the idea that you're not just learning about business, you're living it. I think we manage to fill a reasonably large part of 168 hours in a week.