A Business School Makeover

Transforming a good undergraduate program into a great one requires an attention to politics, the ability to make tough choices, a willingness to risk the anger of stakeholders—and an unwavering commitment to the best interests of the school.
A Business School Makeover

In 1997, the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland was suffering from too much success. Business had become one of the most popular undergraduate majors at the university, and the school was experiencing overwhelming pressures to satisfy an incredible demand for courses. That year, the Smith School enrolled 3,500 junior and senior majors, more than double the number it had enrolled just five years before.

Our problem was compounded by the fact that, although the minimum GPA requirement for acceptance as a business major was 2.8, students could find numerous exceptions to get around the minimum qualifications. The result was a steady increase in undergraduate business students, which created significant problems.

The unwieldy size of the student population made it difficult for the Smith School to provide adequate services. We did not have the funding or personnel to provide appropriate levels of advising, mentoring, and career management and placement services for so many students.

In addition, the faculty carried higher than desirable teaching loads. While the trend at major public business schools was toward teaching three courses per year on average, it was difficult for us to keep the level to four.

Another dilemma centered around student access to business courses. Because of the need to meet the needs of our own students, we could not provide service courses to non-business majors, which created friction between the school and the university.

Furthermore, no sense of community existed among Smith School undergraduates; and, as a result, there was no widespread show of loyalty among undergraduate alumni. The size of the undergraduate class was only one root cause for this situation. The other was the fact that the students were not connected to the school during their freshman and sophomore years.

We knew something had to give if we were to transform the undergraduate program into one characterized by exceptional academic offerings and services. Defining what we needed to do was easy. By the end of the 1997–98 school year, we had identified five critical action items:

  • Decrease the number of students.
  • Resolve the teaching load problem.
  • Enhance courses.
  • Create a sense of community.
  • Improve the technology and physical infrastructures.

Next, we had to accomplish the difficult task of winning the university’s support and implementing the solutions.

Fixing the Numbers

The numbers issue was a thorny one. University admissions officials wanted to maintain wide access to business courses for undergraduates. In addition, there was a campuswide misperception that the business school was rich and overflowing with resources.We quickly realized that the Smith School had not made an effective case for a smaller and more talented undergraduate student body.

We argued the case relentlessly, clearly defining the issues in terms of improving service to students and faculty, and growing the prestige of the school and the university. However, it was only when the dean voiced barely veiled threats to “flunk out a third of the students” that we won control of the number and quality of students admitted as business majors.

One of our first steps was to raise the minimum GPA for admission as a business major from 2.8 to 3.0. We also eliminated “provisional admissions,” a practice whereby freshmen could declare business as a major without meeting prescribed requirements. Under the “provisional admissions” policy, the school was forced to accept many undergraduates, only to drop some of them later because they did not meet our standards after taking the business gateway courses. We eventually had to eject hundreds from the business school, weathering a firestorm of protests from students and parents.

We negotiated the fast-track construction of a new wing for Van Munching Hall, which would double our space to some 225,000 square feet. This $38 million facility will be fully operational in late spring 2002.

Even after we eliminated “provisional admits” and increased the GPA requirement, the numbers were still too high. Therefore, we decided to cap our admission at 800 juniors and 800 seniors.

We also created a category called “direct admits” to describe a small number of select high school graduates who met the minimum requirements of a 3.2 GPA and 1300 SAT. In 1999, our 151 directly admitted freshmen had earned an average 3.74 GPA and 1338 SAT. The 214 just admitted in fall 2001 earned an average 3.97 GPA and 1360 SAT. As these direct admits reach their junior year, they count against the 800-student cap and reduce the number of transfer students who can be admitted as juniors.

Our current goal is to grow our freshman class to about 400 students. Assuming that these 400 advance successfully to their junior year, we will have 400 remaining spaces for transfer students admitted as juniors. We will admit these qualified transfers in order of their GPAs, starting with the highest, to meet the cap. We’ve also added a “demonstration of leadership” requirement to allow us greater refinement in admissions decisions.

Upgrading the Infrastructure

Though decreasing the numbers may have been the most difficult issue, the inadequacy of our technology and physical infrastructures also presented challenges. The infrastructures could not support the 3,000-plus students in our undergraduate, MBA, MS, and Ph.D. programs. As a result, Smith faculty had to teach some undergraduate courses outside the state-of-the-art Van Munching Hall, the Smith School’s home. This underscored the inequitable state of technology resources across campus.

To support classes outside Van Munching, we invested in a number of $20,000 technology carts for use in those classes. Within Van Munching, we upgraded every computer by borrowing the dollars required and financing the debt over a three-year period.

In addition, we negotiated the fast-track construction of a new wing for Van Munching Hall, which would double our space to some 225,000 square feet. Though this $38 million facility was not on the university’s long-range plan as of January 1998, we broke ground in 2000, and the facility will be fully operational in late spring 2002. The Smith School soon will be able to offer nearly all its undergraduate classes under one roof.

Reducing Teaching Loads

In major research institutions, as the faculty teaching load goes up, research productivity and new knowledge generation go down. This equation was not acceptable at the Smith School.

To help deal with our teaching load problem at the undergraduate level, we created a new category for faculty members and filled it with Teaching Professors. These are non-tenure track professors with doctoral degrees, state-of-the-art knowledge in their fields, expert teaching skills, and three-year contracts with one-year notice. They participate fully in department and school meetings and are eligible for all teaching awards. Their merit salary increases are based 75 percent on teaching quality and 25 percent on service.

Since we have added Teaching Professors, we have been able to keep our largest sections of 300- and 400-level courses to about 45 students each. The exceptions are required core courses, and these we break down into small discussion sections of about 30 to 40 students. As a result, tenured and tenure-track faculty teaching loads average 8.5 credit hours per year. In addition, we use visiting professors to enhance our research productivity, whereas in the past we hired them to relieve our teaching load.

For many undergraduates, experiences outside the classroom can be just as important as those inside. With this in mind, the Smith School in fall 2000 launched a series of activities to help build a community of undergraduates.

Enhancing Quality

Three years ago, to promote continuous improvement, the dean of the Smith School directed each department to redesign one or two undergraduate courses per year. The goal was to ensure that each course would reflect the latest in business knowledge and practice.

Students perform team-building exercises at an Undergraduate Leadership Retreat, an event organized to help build a sense of community within the Smith School of Business. In “Blind Object Rebuild,” sighted team members use nonverbal cues to direct blindfolded members to rebuild an object. Challenge Discovery, an action learning organization, facilitated this and other exercises at the retreat.

At this time, more than 20 courses have been redesigned. One such course is business statistics, which underwent a total redesign. Now more practically oriented, it is taught by a master teacher specially recruited to teach the course. Students benefit from smaller discussion sections, an increased number of teaching assistants, and significant technology integration. In the past year, the course has advanced from being one of the Smith School’s lowest ranked offerings— as statistics courses are in many business schools—to one of the highest. The professor recruited to teach the course was nominated and was a finalist for the university’s “Teacher of the Year.”

We also seized this opportunity to enhance teaching quality. The dean reinforced the school’s commitment to exceptional teaching through several actions:

  • He refused to promote an associate professor.
  • He designed and implemented specific plans to address the deficiencies of individual faculty members.
  • He created a Teaching Enhancement Committee to develop strategies to improve teaching quality.

Today, teaching quality at Smith is at an all-time high, with student ratings of faculty averaging 4.2 on a 5-point scale.

Creating a Sense of Community

For many undergraduates, experiences outside the classroom can be just as important as those inside. With this in mind, the Smith School in fall 2000 launched a series of activities to help build a community of undergraduates.

One new initiative is the Freshman Convocation, which brings together members of the Smith School community to welcome new freshmen. The Gateway Club, a Smith School student organization that provides professional, social, and personal development activities for freshmen and sophomores pursuing business majors, co-sponsors this event.

We also launched the Leadership Retreat, which brings together officers from the 14 undergraduate student organizations to develop action plans for their organizations, and to hone leadership and other skills.

Our annual Undergraduate Student Banquet has evolved from a poorly attended event that attracted only 50 students, to a gala affair that attracted about 400 students, alumni, recruiters and other corporate representatives, faculty, and staff in spring 2001.

One of our newest community-building initiatives will be the launch of our Business Scholars Program in fall 2002. All of our directly admitted freshmen will enter the Smith School as Business Scholars, mentored by faculty and others from the very beginning.

Since the Smith School continues to limit the number of students admitted as business majors, we must extend our resources campuswide in other ways to grow our sense of community. That is one of the reasons we established the Smith School’s Entrepreneurship Citation Program in the spring of 2000. The program joins selected undergraduates from business and other areas to encourage them to create and grow high-potential enterprises.

Generating Resources

Our undergraduate program transformation obviously has required changes in funding attitudes and actions. In 1998, we were about 85 percent to 90 percent state-funded. Today, we are about 40 percent state-funded, and our gross budget (at about $40 million) is more than double its 1998 level. Increased revenue is derived from private funding, centers and contracts, executive education, and differential tuition from our full-time and off-site part-time MBA programs.

Funding for the new wing of Van Munching Hall has come from various sources, including the State of Maryland, the University of Maryland, and private gifts. Another funding source has been construction bonds issued by the university but guaranteed by the business school, which has full responsibility for principal and interest. We also have been willing to incur debt at times to fund the necessary enhancements.

Lessons Learned

As guardians of one of the most popular undergraduate majors at the University of Maryland, we offer the following advice for those who want to implement major academic program change:

  • Make and stick to the hard choices. Be constantly vigilant to make sure that others are supporting those choices.
  • Be innovative. Innovation led to the creation of Teaching Professors at the Smith School, helping both to relieve faculty course overload and enhance teaching quality.
  • Be thick-skinned. Enforcement of our limited enrollment policies angered some students, parents, university officials, and other stakeholders. But the result is a stronger Smith undergraduate program, of which all constituencies can be proud.
  • Go against the grain to find the resources to support enhancements. Challenge the conventional practices of inflexible timelines for capital projects. Be willing to incur debt.

The Smith School’s undergraduate program is well on its way to becoming truly distinguished. We’re looking forward to moving into our new wing this spring and to welcoming our first class of Smith Business Scholars in fall 2002.

From the outset, we knew that this transformation would not and could not be about being “loved.” It had to be about being successful. The irony is that because of the success we’ve achieved, our students love the Smith School.

Howard Frank has been dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business since 1997. Patricia Cleveland joined the Smith School as assistant dean of undergraduate studies in 1998.