Rebuilding Wharton’s Undergraduate Curriculum

Developing a new program with a focus on leadership was a labor of love for faculty, staff, and students.

 

When Wharton’s undergraduate division installed its new curriculum in the fall, it was the culmination of two years of debate, collaboration, and long hours behind the scenes. How challenging was the process? Undergraduate Vice Dean and Director Lori Rosenkopf compares it to getting a bill through Congress. “When you change a system,” she says, “everyone wants to help his or her constituency at the expense of other constituencies.” The process was complex, she says, because “we wanted more depth around technology and globalization, and that touched every Wharton department. It’s not like the old curriculum wasn’t in decent shape, but Wharton is the number one undergraduate business school in the world, and it’s our responsibility to lead with a 21st-century curriculum.”

Shortly after his arrival in 2014, Dean Geoffrey Garrett formed a committee to take a closer look at the undergraduate curriculum. He anticipated that a change was due—a review panel had made a few recommendations and tweaks to the program in 2003, but the last complete refresh had been implemented in 1991. The dean’s committee acknowledged the rapid evolution of technology, analytics, and business around the world, along with increasing employer demand for leadership training, and decided it was time for an overhaul. Piloted in the spring of 2017 and officially rolled out in September, the new curriculum emphasizes leadership and reshapes the foundation of the four-year student journey.

“From my perspective, they made a large change, giving all Wharton students a unified experience,” says Professor Keith Niedermeier, director of Wharton’s undergraduate marketing program. “There were some lofty goals to tie these sessions together in a way that builds around leadership and interactive learning. That was a tall order.”

 

Data-Driven School, Data-Driven Review

Headed up by finance professor Bilge Yılmaz, the 12-person review committee included senior faculty members from each Wharton department as well as two students, Alice King W16 and Hari Joy W16, serving in non-voting roles.

The committee reviewed data from student, alumni, and employer surveys, along with feedback from town hall meetings, forums, and informal conversations King and Joy had with their peers. Perspectives from faculty, administration, staff, and students provided a broad range of insights into the curriculum. The committee weighed everything members knew about the student experience and what employers are looking for against Wharton’s faculty expertise. Senior Director of Academic and Student Affairs Scott Romeika calls it a juggling act: “Every recruiter, employer, and alumnus thinks we should do everything, but there should be a match with our strengths.” It was an exhaustive process—Yılmaz estimates that in the final month and a half leading up to the faculty vote in April 2016, the committee was a 30-hour-per-week endeavor for him.

At the heart of the overhaul is a deeper commitment to building C-suite skills that can translate into any career or field. “Everyone knew that Wharton students were the best technically trained,” Rosenkopf says. “But we heard from employers that there was room for improvement in leadership.” This led to the idea of spreading communication, teamwork, and diversity training across all four years. “Leadership isn’t something you learn in one 14-week course,” says Romeika.

Communication, teamwork, and diversity are now spread across four years. “Leadership isn’t something you learn in one course,” says senior director Scott Romeika.

In that spirit, all incoming students now embark on “The Leadership Journey,” which extends throughout the entire Wharton experience. The series of four half-credit modules begins with Wharton 101: Business and You, which provides exposure to faculty from all 10 of Wharton’s departments. Prior to Wharton 101, if a particular area didn’t seem relevant, a student could put it off, possibly missing out on a deeper dive if the subject became more compelling later. Now, even if students don’t think they’re interested in a subject, they’ll be exposed to it early. Subsequent modules are Management Communication (Wharton 201), Teamwork and Interpersonal Dynamics (Wharton 301), and a Senior Capstone Project in which students work as a team to solve a business problem. Capstone projects, Romeika says, will allow students to pull together everything they’ve learned throughout the Leadership Journey “in a demonstrable way.”

In addition to emphasizing technology and the global economy, the new curriculum makes some subtle but important tweaks, such as elevating business ethics and law from a secondary bracket to Business Fundamentals and increasing the number of unrestricted electives to balance business education with liberal arts.

Easing the School’s language requirement to enable more electives was the biggest source of debate among committee members, according to Yılmaz. The new curriculum requires two semesters of a language, down from four. “Being a global citizen is important,” he says. “But I’m not sure verb conjugation is the best way of doing it.” Looking at the data, the committee discovered that among Ivy League business schools, Wharton had the most stringent language requirement. One concern was that some incoming students enter Wharton already proficient in a foreign language; now, they can waive the requirement in exchange for taking more electives or adding a minor.

 

Trending Up

While it’s too early to gauge feedback on the full four-year program—the first students to complete the curriculum will be the Class of 2021—early returns on Wharton 101 have been encouraging. “What I’m hearing is generally positive,” says Niedermeier, who’s also a Wharton 101 teacher. “It’s being led by the top of the undergraduate division, and they are doing a good job.” Niedermeier, who has previously encountered a few incoming students who didn’t understand the nuances of some fields—for example, the difference between sales and marketing—says Wharton 101 is improving awareness of all the disciplines earlier in students’ academic careers.

“Wharton 101 was pass-fail, but I still took a lot of notes,” says Tari Clement W21, one of 518 freshmen who completed the class in the fall of 2017. Clement, who’s interested in a management concentration, says she liked that professors from every department came in to talk about their areas of expertise—something many students have said they appreciate. Clement especially enjoyed working on a management consulting group project with her fellow freshmen.

Yılmaz echoes Rosenkopf’s bill-through-Congress analogy when he says leading the committee was one of the hardest things he’s ever done and yet quite satisfying: “Wharton is a big school. I got to work with people I’d never have had a chance to meet. It was a good learning experience, and I’m pleased with the outcome.”

Student representative King agrees. “I felt so fortunate that we were doing a curriculum change when I was there,” she says, paraphrasing her favorite musical, Hamilton: “I was lucky to be in the room where it happened.”

 

Louis Greenstein is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor.

 

Published as “Undergrad Overhaul’” in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.

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