February 18, 2002
Much of the Envision discussion with Darden faculty and alumni focused on the unique culture of the school. Darden stands out among its peers for the nearly seamless integration of its functional programs, its emphasis on ethical values and principled decision-making, and above all, for its dedication to students and the learning process.
With its devotion to active rather than passive learning, to cultivating real-world skills rather than theory, and to the ethical dimensions of management, Darden provides an atmosphere for learning that does not exist in other business schools of its stature. The intensity of the MBA program, especially the first-year experience, fosters a sense of community, camaraderie, and loyalty. As one faculty member observed, "We love the students, and they love the school." Faculty are loyal to the school as well, in part because they have a voice in how it is structured and managed. Unlike many other schools, Darden's governance depends on a large faculty role rather than being run by corps of professional administrators. It is a place where faculty and staff work together, where students work together, and where students, faculty and staff work together.
The Advantages of an Integrated Learning Systems
The full integration of functional areas at Darden underpins the general management emphasis of the school. "Other schools claim they are integrated, but we truly are. We do it differently," said one participant. As a result, students and faculty are committed to the school rather than a discipline, such as accounting, finance, marketing, or operations. Faculty routinely work across disciplinary lines within the school, and students come away from the Darden experience with a more global picture of the business world than would be afforded by program requiring concentration in a single functional area.
The Student Culture
Although the school is physically removed from the heart of the University, and although its students are older than undergraduates and even most graduate students in other schools, Darden's MBA candidates embrace the culture of honor and student self-governance at the University as strongly as any students on the Grounds. Faculty contend that the way their students adhere to a rigorous code of ethical conduct stands out even at the University, which has few equals among institutions that place a high premium on integrity. One participant shared the anecdote that when representatives from a company were looking at Darden as a possible partner in one of its programs, they noticed the honor pledge in every classroom. The school's ethical culture turned out to be the deciding factor in their choice of Darden for the partnership.
Darden attracts students who know that honor and ethics are part of the fabric of the institution, so there is a self-selection process at work in the school. Although they are preparing for leadership in a competitive business environment, their success at Darden depends on cooperation and teamwork. Working outside the classroom in study groups, they discover that integrity is a vital component of being a leader.
The student experience cements the relationship between Darden and its alumni. Students have a clear understanding that they matter to the school, and thus the school matters to them. This translates into a sense of ownership and commitment that manifests itself in ways large and small-in the way a student will pick up a piece of trash he sees in the hallway or in the way Darden alumni give generously to the school after they earn their degrees.
The Outlook for Growth
The connection between Darden and its students is in part a product of its relatively small size, which affords a sense of intimacy and ready student-faculty interaction. The school intends to enlarge its student body by 25 percent, but it will keep its class sections and study groups the size they are now to preserve Darden's special character. It wants continue to offer the feeling of community.
The challenge to achieving this goal is that faculty who will thrive in the Darden environment are not easy to find. Most business faculty are products of schools that reward professors for their individual scholarship rather than for contributing to the larger culture of the school. By contrast, finding additional students who would value the Darden experience will be relatively easy.
Telling the Darden Story
One of the difficulties arising from Darden's special culture is that it is hard to describe it to those who have not experienced it. Terms such as integrated, student-centered, and teaching-based fail to capture the full essence of what makes Darden unique. As it strives to project its brand, both nationally and internationally, Darden must find effective ways to tell its story and to demonstrate how it differs substantially from other top-tier schools.
The Role of Executive Education
Executive education has been a vital part of Darden since its founding. The school seeks to improve the practice and profession of management and to have its faculty actively interacting with executives. In addition to being an important source of revenue, executive programs build connections with the business community that translate into fresh material for case-method teaching and career opportunities for students. Though Darden offers a more extensive - and in many ways better - array of executive programs than nearly any other business school, it faces growing competition for the executive education participant. As companies hire more MBAs, there is less need to send their executives back to school for some forms of management training. The school must redouble its efforts to maintain relationships with corporate human resources officers, who play a key role in directing company personnel to Darden for professional development.
The Cost of Education Delivery
The student-faculty interaction and the richness of the learning environment at Darden do not come cheaply. Indeed, if current trends continue, fewer and fewer schools will be able to deliver an MBA program of comparable quality. Rising costs are being fueled by the growing need for expert staffing in such areas as admissions, placement, technology, alumni relations, and fund raising.
Competition for good MBA students is getting more heated. Darden's approach to MBA training requires a two-year commitment from students; it is not a place where a junior-level manager can pursue a degree part-time while remaining on the job. Distance learning would seem to offer a way to reach out to this population, but it would fail to capture the full Darden experience.
Sustaining a Diverse Community
With the full-time faculty comprised of 22 percent women and 5 percent African-Americans, the Darden School compares well with many of its peers in the diversity of its teachers and scholars. Nevertheless, the school recognizes that more must be done to make the school an attractive, welcoming place for minority and female professors. Like the rest of the University, Darden faces an uphill effort in this regard. The pool of minority and female applicants remains small, and the University's size and small-city location afford limited career opportunities for accompanying spouses. Twelve percent of the current faculty come from outside of the U.S. and while this percentage has increased in recent years, additional increases will help build Darden's global capabilities.
As for the student body, current enrollment is about 29 percent female, 5 percent African- American, and 6 percent Asian-American. Darden's admissions office networks with women's professional organizations to search for female applicants, and the LEAD program (in which Darden has participated for some 20 years) helps to increase the number of African Americans interested in pursuing an MBA. Again, Darden finds it hard to compete with schools in major urban centers for international and minority students, but it is holding its own. The school now has well-established affinity groups that provide support for women, minorities, and international students.
The market for MBA students is becoming increasingly international, but working on a global scale has not been one of Darden's competitive strengths. It has taken many years and considerable effort to establish the Darden brand nationally; now it must do the same worldwide. International MBA applicants tend to favor urban schools, and unlike Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, the U.Va. brand does not help Darden internationally. The University of Virginia is not widely known outside the United States. There have been efforts to establish partnerships with schools abroad, but apart from exchange programs, these ventures have not yet been very successful.
International students rely largely on rankings in selecting a graduate business school. Beyond that, it was noted that the characteristics that set Darden apart from its peers are hard to convey to the international market. Fortunately, Darden's success with international students in the past is paying off. Foreign alumni who had rewarding experiences at Darden are telling the school's story abroad, and this growing international network is helping to influence students' decisions as they consider where to pursue an MBA. At present, students from abroad account for over 40 percent of the school's applicants and about 30 percent of its current enrollment.
As for programs abroad, faculty discussed the possibility of planting the school's flag in China and Latin America. Others suggested looking strategically at regions where there are large concentrations of Darden and University alumni. Participants thought it important for the University's international reach to include both undergraduate programs and Darden. Darden will also explore selected alliances with business schools around the world.
Creating New Alliances
Darden has established strong and longstanding ties with major corporations, and these relationships help the school in a number of areas: student recruiting (for both the MBA program and executive programs), placement, case development, and fund raising. For much of Darden's history, students came from large companies and went on to work for other large companies. This created a synergy that has benefited the school in multiple ways.
With the rapid growth of the entrepreneurial sector in recent times, the companies that hire MBAs are not always the same ones that send executive education participants to Darden or that work with faculty to help them write fresh cases. Darden must establish new relationships with emerging businesses to keep beneficial synergies (and the support of corporate partners) from dissipating, and it must maintain ties with graduates who are working in incubators and entrepreneurial ventures.
External Issues Affecting the School
Concern was expressed among some participants that Darden's peer group is becoming increasingly homogeneous. There is a perception that in recent years Darden's increased emphasis on research and publishing may come at the cost of teaching. At the same time, top schools known chiefly for their research strengths are now putting more effort into their knowledge delivery systems. As a result, there is a fear that Darden may find it harder to distinguish itself from its top competitors.
Another concern is that many of Darden's most prominent faculty will retire in the next ten years. To fill this void, the school will need to begin recruiting professors who will thrive in the Darden's culture.
Ties With Other Areas of the University
The Envision participants considered a number of ways Darden has and could establish stronger ties with other areas of the University. Joint degree programs are being offered with the schools of Law, Engineering, Arts and Sciences and Nursing, and a new one has been established with Architecture. Faculty in Darden's outstanding ethics program have helped to establish the University-wide Institute for Practical Ethics.
Possibilities for other collaborative initiatives were envisioned for areas as varied as law, education, commerce, mathematics, the arts, and film studies.
The University's international efforts, growing out of the Virginia 2020 planning process, could be very helpful to Darden as it works to increase its presence abroad, and Darden would be a valuable participant in the proposed Institute on Aging. The Darden participants felt that the school has been left out of the U-21 international e-learning coalition; they would like to be brought into the loop. The University Press was also cited as a vehicle that could help to put Darden and the University on a much broader international stage.
When asked for ideas about how a transformational gift ($25 million) should be used, the participants' answers reflected Darden's values and its commitment to being a global force in business education. Individual participants suggested that they would invest such funds in the following ways:
||Achieve pre-eminence in the study of practical ethics. With this support, the University would become the premier center of thought on how society can grapple with daunting ethical issues, such as those arising from advances in biology and technology.
||Create a Darden program overseas, with a resident set of faculty, where students could spend part of their first year. This would raise the profile of Darden and the University as an international player.
||Drawing on expertise at Darden and across the University, establish a world center on quality-of-life issues. It would deal with such matters as sustainability, population control, and the way we will live our lives over the next 200 years. This center would work not only with business on these issues, but also with non-governmental organizations active in the global arena.
||Create a scaleable business incubator that can be enlarged as new opportunities arise.
||Establish a center aimed at bridging the gap between haves and have-nots around the globe. The center would link Darden's resources with University experts in such fields as political science and anthropology. The center's goal would be to find solutions to poverty and other problems that breed war, unrest, and terrorism.
||Fund endowments that will address two needs
||Building and sustaining a diverse faculty that embraces the values of the Darden School;
||Providing financial aid to ensure access for all qualified students as the cost of a Darden education increases.
||As Darden grows overall, ensure that it can offer smaller, interactive classes that promote active learning and preserve the sense of intimacy and community that are such an important part of the Darden culture. Such classes might also be structured to include interactions with students from other schools (e.g., law).
Looking Beyond the Needs of Business
The Envision conversation at Darden revealed a school that has a strong sense of its own unique strengths but that remains open to change. It sees its mission as much larger than serving the needs of business. Through the training of future MBAs and by marshaling its expertise in general management, entrepreneurial studies, and ethics, it stands ready to address problems of global significance.