As I’m writing this on the West Coast at 11 p.m., Oct. 11, three top administrators from the University of Southern California—Provost Elizabeth Garrett; James Ellis, dean of the Marshall School of Business; and his vice dean for academic affairs, John Matsusaka—are in Milan wrapping up an agreement with their counterparts at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Bocconi University. These three universities are collaborating to launch a three-continent degree program that will take students from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Milan. They’ve formed a partnership to establish the World Bachelor in Business (WBB). Innovative is too bland a word for what I consider an inspiring and unique breakthrough: the reframing of undergraduate business education with far-reaching and profound consequences.
One sign of its significance was the spectacular international coverage. It garnered Page 1, above-the-fold headlines in just about every business newspaper and magazine. For good reason. Imagine this: You are one of 45 students starting their first year of college, 15 each from Bocconi, Hong Kong, and USC, all carefully selected on identical admission criteria. All 45 spend their entire first academic year in Los Angeles at USC, their second year at HKUST Business School, and year three at Bocconi in Milan. The students then get to choose which of the three universities they want to spend their fourth and final year.
What do they get? Well, listen up and you’ll understand the basis for my brazen gusto. Three bachelor’s degrees from three outstanding universities. But as they say in TV commercials, “much, much more!” Garrett frames it this way: “WBB represents a unique approach to undergraduate education that global executives have been demanding for years, an approach that will prepare a new generation of leaders for the opportunities of an increasingly connected world. The program will allow students to explore diverse cultures and challenge them to think and learn from broad and divergent perspectives.” Although all classes will be taught in English, the students will learn two other languages—Italian and Chinese—along the way through the daily interchange with their cohort group of 45 as well as mixing in with the regular business degree students.
There’s not a vibrant B-school in the world that isn’t searching for or stumbling toward a way to teach a “global mind.” WBB is the closest it gets to that vivid utopia we can only imagine. I say that because the three-continent experience is intended to cultivate students’ understanding of the business practices, economies, cultures, and societies of the different regions. HKUST Provost Wei Shyy adds: “The program will not only have in-depth understanding of professional knowledge and practices of the three regions, but also language competence, cultural sensitivity, global vision, an international network, and employment mobility.” And Guido Tabellini, rector of Bocconi, eloquently adds: “As well as gaining three degrees, students will also earn a passport to the world.”
While writing this I have the fantasy that the Marshall School’s Matsusaka, the main catalyst for this program, is looking sternly over my shoulders and whispering, “Warren, be careful. We’re just starting this adventure in the 2013-14 academic year. And one of the main reasons we’re doing it is to learn how to do it. We thought this was the way to go, and we’re really trying to get a global mind-set at a very young age.” He’s no longer whispering but leans heavily on my shoulders and warns me not to overstate or oversell. A colleague and fellow economist at USC who worked with Matsusaka on WBB from the beginning, Ty Callahan, said virtually the same thing when I interviewed him a few days ago. He said this is an experiment from which we can learn. “Don’t go overboard,” Callahan said, too aware, I thought, of my enthusiasms. Well, Ty and my other faithful readers, I’ll stand with Provost Garrett on this one. WBB in 4 years, she proposes, will educate the first cadre of “World Citizens.”
Earlier I hinted at the “far-reaching and profound consequences” of WBB. Based on the success of the program, three speculations on the future of management education come to mind.
First, given the state of our economy and the economic forecasts for the next three decades (flat), as well as the opportunity costs of both an undergraduate degree and an MBA, perhaps a first-class undergraduate business education will be a better option for many students. And better for B-schools, too: as the New York Times recently reported, matriculation among U.S. citizens and permanent residents fell 2.3 percent from the fall of 2010 to the fall of 2011. “Enrollment in college is still climbing,” the Times wrote, “but students are increasingly saying no to graduate school in the U.S.”
Implications for ranking B-schools: Traditional full-time MBA programs are the gold standard for the rankings; scant attention, if any, is paid to the undergraduate programs. To take only one example, Bloomberg Businessweek ranks both graduate and undergraduate programs. There’s only a loose connection between the two. Only three universities are on both top 10 lists. Don’t even ask about rankings of online programs. I’ve never heard of most of the programs that make those various rankings lists. I hope, and certainly predict, that media organizations will pay more attention to undergraduate programs like WBB. I know parents will.
WBB is a model that will soon be copied. If I were a dean of a top school, I would go one better than USC and initiate a five-year program including a fourth continent that’s bound to play a larger and larger role in the next decade. The graduate of this five-year program would receive both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. My only hint is that the country’s name ends with an “l.”
I’ll have more to say about these last three points before the end of 2012. Stay tuned.