EMBA Spotlight: How Cornell Johnson’s Program Is Uniquely Suited To The Moment

How Cornell Johnson’s EMBA Is Uniquely Suited To 2023’s Murky Outlook

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Switching gears a bit, considering your EMBA Metro in New York City, you’re in a very crowded EMBA market. What sets yours apart?

Manoj Thomas: That’s a great question. You know, we had a student who had an offer with a higher scholarship to a top five MBA program, and he chose us. I was very curious to know why, so I asked him.

Part of the reason was the value of Cornell resonated strongly with him. We teach accounting and marketing and operations and all of that pretty well – and so do our other top 10 competitors. If you’ve been to Ithaca, you realize that this is a very different kind of place. And if you look at the history of Cornell and when we started our MBA program in 1946, we’ve always been about not just creating the best leaders but also creating people who are thoughtful, who are creating a better world, and who are mindful of the larger societal responsibilities – not just seeking profit. That’s not something that we started doing the past five, six years because it’s become a hot trend. It’s an inherent part of what Cornell is.

The other thing that makes us really unique is our team-based learning. The executive MBAs, at their stage of careers, want more than just learning how to read balance sheets or how to read P&L statements. They want to have some meaning in life. One way to do that is building these real honest relationships.

We invest a lot, and we are improving every year, in our pedagogical approach of integrating and learning from peers. All our classes have teams of four to five; we have team coaches, giving feedback and helping each individual grow as a leader, but at the same time realize that he or she has responsibilities to the team.

What I’ve learned as an instructor is that our EMBA students – executives and some senior managers – don’t mind getting a bad grade for an individual assignment, but they cannot stand the idea of getting a bad grade for the team assignment because they are representing the entire team.

Mark Nelson: The motto of Cornell University is “Any person, any study,” and that was formulated in the very beginning, in 1868. Ezra Cornell (university founder) wanted to open the doors to education regardless of gender, regardless of nationality, regardless of religion. People just didn’t do that back then, and it’s baked into our ethos. It creates a culture that, to some extent, people self-select for. But there’s also a significant treatment effect, a significant pedagogical emphasis that Manoj talked about.

How is the Cornell EMBA curriculum evolving?

Manoj Thomas: We are revising our curriculum to teach the importance of socially responsible and ethical leadership. Additionally, we are using technological advances to offer more customized curricular options to our students.

How Cornell Johnson’s EMBA Is Uniquely Suited To 2023’s Murky Outlook

Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island.

More and more executive MBAs expect discussions about socially responsible and ethical leadership in classrooms. Students demand coursework addressing topics like how to protect natural resources while pursuing profitable growth, and how to address societal concerns such as employee diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are pleased to observe this trend in business school education because it is very much aligned with Cornell’s commitment to grooming business leaders to generate shared and sustainable prosperity. In fact, several students have reported choosing us over competing programs because of Cornell’s values and mission.

Second, we continue to harness technological innovations to improve our curriculum. We now offer our executive MBA students the ability to pursue certificate programs on specific topics, in addition to their MBA degree. For example, a Cornell EMBA can earn for no extra cost, in addition to their MBA degree, a Cornell certificate on topics such as Data Science Essentials or Social Media Marketing or Hospitality Management. They can study for these certificates while enrolled in the EMBA program or even after graduating from the EMBA program. These certificate programs are offered by eCornell, which is Cornell University’s professional education and lifelong learning unit, providing online professional and executive development certificate programs.

What are some opportunities you see in the EMBA market?

Manoj Thomas: I personally think that the pandemic has changed people’s behavior in a fundamental way. We didn’t realize that we could work remotely and, in some cases, be more effective, before the pandemic happened.

Cornell already had a lot of technologies for offering these instructions online, but now so many more people have realized that they can effectively learn online. We are, I would like to believe, at the forefront of this.

So, for us, the opportunity is growing our Americas program. We typically admit students with 15 years experience and five to six years of management experience. We want to explore whether there are other student populations that we could admit to expand in our program.

The second opportunity is growing into verticals. If you look at the Healthcare MBA programs, that’s a very fast growing space. You see four or five players in this market. But all of them are standard MBA programs with a few courses taught by their business school faculty.

What we are offering is very unique. We are offering an MBA/Ms in Healthcare Leadership taught by faculty from both our medical school and our business school. The student population entails both physicians/clinicians, and people who are working in the healthcare space but not in clinical roles. I think that’s also a very, very unique opportunity.

I think those are the opportunities: both expanding laterally to geographies that we were not able to reach through technology, and going vertically offering MBA programs that are specifically tailored for various populations.

Mark Nelson: COVID created an acceptance of using asynchronous and synchronous augmentation of a face-to-face experience. And that’s something, again, that Cornell has invested a lot in. eCornell, for example, has a huge amount of content that’s been developed by faculty out of our business college, and we’re harnessing that content to augment what people have in their ordinary MBA program and giving them free access. By creatively using synchronous and asynchronous technology we can meet students when and where they are. I think there’s just going to be a lot of demand for that sort of opportunity.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Mark Nelson: One thing that we didn’t talk about is diversity and inclusion. Again, I go back to, “Any person, any study,” and Johnson had the first Office of Diversity and Inclusion of a major business school. It’s something that is important to us as we recruit students, but also as we’re supporting our students and helping them develop. Business leaders have to be able to test the capabilities of a diverse set of people and have an experience that reflects what they’re seeing in the variety of business that we all experience.

We’re adaptive and we’re growing. A definite focus is ESG and sustainability content. This is a curriculum that is forward looking, and is preparing our students for what they’re going to face tomorrow, and not what they would have faced 10 years ago.

Manoj Thomas: I just want to kind of emphasize that we are an Ivy League university. What do you think of when you hear Ivy League? You think about exclusivity, you can think about being a leader.

But then we are an Ivy League university whose motto is “Any person, any study.” Just think about the contradiction. That’s what is unique about Cornell. We’ve actually managed to implement that saying, “if you’re a physician, that’s fine. If you’re interested in the environment, that’s fine, we have an MBA for you. You can be in Wyoming and yet get an Ivy League MBA.” Implementing that “Any person, any study” ethos and really opening up our campus to everybody is what I think we’ve done pretty well.


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