Terps and MBAs Improved program: The University of Maryland's revamped MBA program has been revamped, and improved, under the direction of former business executive William E. Mayer.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One thing you'll learn by the briefcase-full in the University of Maryland's MBA program is fluent 1990s bizspeak.

Students and professors alike can talk about "continuous improvement," "organizational re-engineering" and "total quality" until they sound like the Tom Peters tabernacle choir.

The difference in College Park is that they're living the lingo.

Instead of just parroting the lessons of "change management," the Maryland Business School itself has just gone through a revamping drastic enough to warm the heart of a McKinsey & Co. consultant.

Every course in Maryland's master of business administration program has been altered in the last two years. Canonical cornerstones like accounting have been shrunk or retooled. Softer disciplines such as communication have been polished and offbeat electives such as sports management have been added.

Serving student "customers" is the focus of rhetoric and navel-gazing. Professors must "sell" their teaching; classes get canceled if fewer than 10 sign up.

"Teamwork" is both subject and object -- group projects are a classroom staple and "town meetings" of students and faculty regularly assess academic policy.

"Education doesn't tend to change very rapidly," said Stephen Carroll, a longtime professor at the school. "Universities have been compared to glaciers, and the business school is not really an exception. But I think the dean has moved us actually quite rapidly in a very short period of time."

The dean is William E. Mayer, 55, multimillionaire, wine connoisseur, ex-Wall Street heavyweight and Maryland alumnus.

It has been three years since Mr. Mayer arrived in College Park, sending some trepidation before him. Corporate executives have had a mixed record in academia. Mr. Mayer was fresh from a failed deanship at the University of Rochester, and he had initially rejected the Maryland job before being talked into it by university President William E. Kirwan.

Now, many judge his overhaul successful.

Full-time MBA applications to the business school rose by 23 percent this year, thanks in part to aggressive recruiting overseas, and the acceptance rate dipped to 17.5 percent, down from 22.9 percent last year. First-year students' average score on the Graduate Management Admission Test was 630 this year, up from 605 in 1992. (The average is 650 at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, 680 at Stanford.)

MBA students' average work experience before they enroll has risen to four years, and starting salaries for graduates rose to $50,830 this year, from $46,000 last year.

The school's reputation still isn't in the big leagues. It's not a Northwestern, or even a University of Virginia. It has not yielded the hiring pipeline to big Wall Street firms that some students hoped Mr. Mayer's background would offer.

It tends to rank somewhere between 20th and 30th in national magazine surveys. Fund raising is up, but tight budgets are still an issue.

But few people would argue with the idea that the school's product has improved, that students are excited about the program and better prepared for the corner offices.

Historically, the school has furnished graduates with "strong, technical, functional knowledge," said William Apollony, senior vice president for First National Bank of Maryland, which recruits there. "But that by itself isn't sufficient today. You need strong ethical values, teamwork, interpersonal skills, communications skills and leadership skills. And that's what I think the program is trying to develop."

Interpersonal skills are one of Bill Mayer's strengths, helping him to steer through academic shoals that have grounded other CEOs-turned-dean. Not all faculty members are big Mayer fans.

"He is unlike any other dean," said Gina Koprowski, a second-year MBA student. "He's not an academic. And I think they [faculty] find that different to work with. He's a Wall Street guy. He likes the bottom line."

Professors' salaries have stagnated, in the estimation of some. Workloads are up, in part because Mr. Mayer requires more administrative input from teachers. The stress on "customers" has overshadowed academic research.

But both faculty and students confirm Mr. Mayer's measure that he has forged a working campus consensus in what, for academia, is record time.

"When I showed up, maybe a third of the faculty was so delighted to see me that they would do anything," Mr. Mayer said. "There was probably a third of the faculty that groaned and said maybe he'll get hit by a truck. And the key was, what's going to happen to the middle third? Can you bring them along to the program? And I think it's pretty clear that we did that."

Despite obvious affinities, few business schools are run by ex-corporate chieftains. And even fewer are run successfully.

Grad-school professors can't be ordered around like division vice presidents. And they can't be fired. Entrepreneur Ralph Sorenson clashed with the faculty at the University of Colorado business school over research and teaching burdens when he was named dean in 1992. When they parted company after less than a year, it wasn't the profs who left.

But Mr. Mayer wasn't a typical boss. Even when he was chief executive of investment bank First Boston Corp., he ruled in a collegial, ask-the-troops style that has become increasingly fashionable and increasingly preached in this country's management nurseries.

"You have pictures of some guys who run Wall Street firms as sort of being overpowering, dictatorial, very strong-willed people," said Stephen B. Smith, managing director at Lehman Bros. Inc. and a former Mayer colleague at First Boston. "It's not that Bill is not strong-willed. He is. But Bill almost managed as one of the guys. He's a GI's general."

Mr. Mayer left First Boston a wealthy man five years ago, after much of the firm's ownership shifted to an affiliate of Credit Suisse, the huge Swiss bank. He was 50. He didn't have to work -- in 1986 alone he made $2.6 million, Securities and Exchange Commission documents show.

But he had always been interested in higher education and sat on university boards, and in 1991 he signed on as dean of the business school at the University of Rochester. He resigned eight months later, complaining that the university president had given him only "mirrors and Band-Aids" to learn what businesses needed.

Mr. Mayer thought he was done with academe. In a vacation phone call from Yellowstone National Park, he rejected a deanship at Maryland, where he had gotten his own MBA in the 1960s. Mr. Kirwan later talked him into it.

"What I want you to do is take a sheet of paper and start over," Mr. Mayer told an MBA faculty committee when he arrived. They did.

Mr. Mayer "was coming from a different culture," said Professor Maryam Alavi. "But I think what he brought in as a result of those differences was very helpful. One of his most important contributions has been to really energize the place, in terms of unfreezing the place for change."

The aims: Give students more contact with real businesses. Make sure they could explain ideas as well as rig a spreadsheet. And above all, Mr. Mayer emphasizes, train them to cope with rapid change, with "making decisions with imperfect information."

After many months of brainstorming, meetings, votes, mission statements, arguments and "spirited discussion," as Mr. Mayer describes it, the program was transformed.

Reduced was the heavy accounting requirement. Added was instruction in thinking, writing and giving presentations. Cut were the classes in writing computer programs. Added were "minicourses" in ethics, team-building and managing careers.

Shrunk were the human resources requirements. Added were electives in finance, negotiating and using information technology to make decisions.

The MBA program now has a finance club, a marketing club and a student newspaper. It didn't before. Students get to manage a small fund of university foundation money. They have more contact with business, not only through a CEO lecture series but also by performing team consulting projects for local companies such as Black & Decker.

And the whole program has become its own case study, a reflexive epitome of market responsiveness, of finding out what customers want and figuring out how to deliver it.

Mr. Mayer "really asked for a lot of feedback from the students, what classes do we need, the whole core curriculum," said Jim Rallo, an investment banking associate at Baltimore-based Alex. Brown & Sons who got his Maryland MBA last year.

The business school even discloses student evaluations of faculty members, another object of initial professorial resistance.

"Our whole teaching evaluation process was changed," said Mark Wellman, assistant dean. "We're the only college on campus that allows teaching evaluations to be public."

True to Mr. Mayer's theme, change continues.

His task forces also have revamped the university's undergraduate and doctoral business programs. There's talk of possibly expanding the MBA program, adding 40 full-time students.

The school has about 265 full-time and 400 part-time MBA students now. The faculty complement continues to grow, focusing on professors with more experience.

And Mr. Mayer, who receives $160,000 a year now, continues to preach the Terrapin gospel, especially to Maryland and mid-Atlantic employers. More than half of the school's graduate students are from Maryland; roughly as many get jobs in the area.

"Outreach" to employers and alumni "is our weakest component" and hasn't resulted in enough financial support for the program, Mr. Mayer said.

Despite a $5 million donation a few years ago from Leo and Margaret Van Munching Jr. to support the school's sleek building, opened in 1992, the budget "is tight," Mr. Mayer said. "I used to work for a company that had an expense budget of over a billion dollars. Now I'm in an environment where, $15,000, you pay attention."

He plans to keep working on it. But not forever. "I don't want to stay on past the point of my maximum usefulness here," he said.

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