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M.B.A. Courses Increasingly Address Real-Time News

Business schools still teach traditional cases, but students are introducing timelier conversations.

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Eastman Kodak Co., the imaging and photography company that filed for bankruptcy in January, has been posing for close-ups at business schools across the country, where professors and students are eulogizing Kodak and trying to figure out what went wrong

It's not exactly new for business school courses to examine a case study almost in real time, but the conversations about Kodak and other recent newsmakers—such as Facebook and Groupon—are taking on new intensity and tend to be increasingly driven by students, business school professors and students say. 

Mark Zupan, dean of the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business, has been observing fewer "totally canned or prepackaged cases" and more classroom discussions about current events. 

"Given how ... rapidly the world is changing, there is a trend toward more open cases, where the data that can be accessed through the Internet is more plentiful and dynamic," he says. "The onus nowadays is on students to frame the key questions and then sift through the information to find the relevant data to support their analysis and recommendations."

[Learn more about the case method at Harvard Business School.]

The best business school professors bring up current events as teaching examples in the classroom, says Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

"Social media and the Internet have accelerated the dissemination of knowledge about events, making it easier to add current and relevant business events to the classroom, and perhaps more necessary, given student knowledge," says Finkelstein. 

That doesn't mean that business schools aren't still teaching students about older cases—such as Enron—or that M.B.A. students don't still crave more traditional training. But students do tend to have more of a "thirst" for current developments, says Joel Samen, an M.B.A. student and president of the Marketing Club at the Boston University School of Management

Samen says BU professors often assign students cases to create on their own, which requires that they research current developments at a company. Traditional cases, which tend to be written by professors or doctoral students, are generally written at least a year or two after an event or scenario has occurred, he says. Of the 50 cases that Samen studies each semester, about 10 percent are ones he wrote and the rest are traditional cases, he says, noting that he tends to retain the information better when he himself authored the case. 

[Check out opportunities for M.B.A.'s in the news industry.] 

Although one would assume that younger professors would be more likely to address current events in the classroom, Samen says more established professors, who are more familiar with their curricula, are often readier to deviate from a syllabus than their younger peers. 

The frequency with which current events surface also depends on the class, he says. "For example, now I'm in a corporate finance course and the first half an hour or 45 minutes of the class, which meets twice a week, we discuss something either from the Wall Street Journal or U.S. News or Businessweek," he says. 

At the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, Andrea Kullhem, an M.B.A. student and president of the Marketing Club, has also noticed current events surfacing frequently in her classes. The recent bankruptcy of AMR Corp., which owns American Airlines, and JC Penny's new corporate pricing strategy are two subjects that have come up in class recently, Kullhem says. 

"Current events are a way to enhance our discussion, as well as build our knowledge base with current business practices; not to mention that potential employers expect for us to be up to date on current events," she says. 

[Read about why M.B.A.'s tout the benefits of studying politics.] 

Abram Guerra, another M.B.A. student at Boston University, says his school recently launched an initiative to bring executives into the classroom via video conferencing. "What's happening right now is super relevant, because we're about to go into industry and be the ones who have to make the decisions today," he says.