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Getting on the Fast Track To an Executive M.B.A.

Source:WSJ.com Author:Ronald Alsop Date:03/25/14 Click:

Jiye Shi, a scientist for the biopharmaceutical company UCB, travels regularly to Europe on business and didn't think he could fit an executive M.B.A. program into his globetrotting schedule.

But he recently discovered a revamped program at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business that should suit the demanding pace of his life. Dr. Shi will miss work less often because he will attend classes on alternating Fridays and Saturdays instead of every Friday under the old regimen. In addition, by taking some summer or evening classes, he can now complete the degree in 19 months instead of the usual 22 months.

"With the previous format," Dr. Shi says. "I would have had to miss up to a quarter of class hours, which would have been frustrating and unacceptable. The extra two days at work every month will make a significant difference for me to make progress on collaborative projects and maintain good customer relationships across the continents."

More executive M.B.A. programs are switching to shorter, more flexible schedules to appeal to busy managers and sponsoring companies that want to minimize time away from the workplace. As business becomes ever more global, time is especially of the essence for prospective students like Dr. Shi.

Ken Syme, vice president for global purchasing at Xerox who earned an executive M.B.A. from Rochester last year, believes the school's new schedule will be much less disruptive for companies. "The format will give employers greater flexibility in scheduling," he says. "My boss had trouble always working around my classes every Friday; everything important had to be done between Monday and Thursday."

Schools are shrinking executive M.B.A. calendars in a variety of ways: eliminating summer breaks, cutting courses from the curriculum, combining related courses, and adding more online content. The shortest programs now last as little as 14 to 16 months.

The Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., will launch a new executive M.B.A. this fall that will run for 16 months, down from 21 months previously. It will include weekend classes in Arizona, four week-long modules in the U.S., Europe and China, and some Internet-based courses. "The market is driving the change," says Angel Cabrera, Thunderbird's president, noting that the University of Arizona moved north from Tucson into Thunderbird's backyard last fall with a new 14-month executive M.B.A. program at a Phoenix-area hotel.

Some prospective executive M.B.A. students say they welcome abbreviated programs so they won't have to put their personal lives on hold as long. "Sixteen months will be very intense and will test my time-balancing skills to the max, but it will mean five less months without a life," says Mary Stubbs, who works in aerospace engineering at Honeywell and plans to enroll in Thunderbird's new program.

But how short is too short? That's a subject of much debate among academics who question how a condensed curriculum can measure up in terms of quality. Both Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School are sticking firmly with schedules of 20 months and two years, respectively, because they believe a briefer course of study would diminish the value of their degrees. "We don't want to compromise the rigor and integrity of a Columbia M.B.A.," declares Ethan Hanabury, associate dean.

Howard Kaufold, director of Wharton's M.B.A. for executives, realizes companies want employees as available as possible but contends that they also seek a return on their investment if they're helping pay for the degree. "Companies appreciate the networks their employees build rubbing shoulders with other students during their two years at Wharton," he says. "That's something students and their employers wouldn't benefit from in shorter programs that rely heavily on distance learning."

In defense of their fast-track executive degrees, deans insist that they're paring programs with care. In moving to 15 months from two academic years, the Rochester Institute of Technology didn't decimate the curriculum. For example, it embedded part of a discontinued business, government and society class into a leadership course and merged content from a management information systems class into operations management. "We also beefed up and gave credit for things like our international trip and leadership development," says Brian O'Neil, associate dean.

Some schools maintain that older, experienced managers seeking an executive M.B.A. want not only a speedy education, but also a different learning experience than younger full-time students. "We didn't do M.B.A. Lite when we designed our 14-month program, but we also weren't constrained by traditional academic thinking," says Trina Callie, M.B.A. associate program director at the University of Arizona. "We told the faculty to start fresh, asking what are the critical skills executives need and how can we make the program more interdisciplinary through team teaching by professors and retired executives."

With 55 students, the first executive M.B.A. class in the Phoenix area exceeded Arizona's expectations of 40 to 45. So encouraging was the enrollment, in fact, that this month the university announced it has decided to lease a permanent home in the suburb of Scottsdale.
Copyrighted, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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