Columbia Business School is giving MBA students more of what they want: Tech and ESG classes

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 21, 2022, 12:53 PM
Columbia University, as seen in August 2021. (Photo by: Sergi Reboredo—VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

As the business world evolves, MBA programs need to keep their curricula fresh—and relevant. Technology and digital transformation have therefore been a huge focus for Columbia Business School, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 6 full-time MBA program in the U.S.

In fact, CBS Dean Costis Maglaras is teaching a course this semester with the dean of the School of Engineering on technology breakthroughs and technologies that are “either changing or are poised to change our lives,” he tells Fortune. This is the first course that Maglaras has been able to teach since the onset of the pandemic.

What business school students—and officials alike—also have noticed is seismic shifts in how companies get business done and what they value. And companies of all shapes and sizes have been more focused on ESG (environmental, social, and governance), digital transformation, and technology-related topics. 

To make sure students are well-prepared for today’s business world, CBS is also diving deeper into ESG-related (environmental, social, and governance) topics.

“Across industries, geographies, and company sizes, organizations have been allocating more resources toward improving ESG,” according to a 2022 McKinsey & Co. report. “More than 90% of S&P 500 companies now publish ESG reports in some form, as do approximately 70% of Russell 1000 companies.”

Fortune sat down with Maglaras to learn more about the top business school’s new curriculum, trends and goals. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Fortune: What enrollment trends are you seeing? What are current MBAs interested in?

Maglaras: Over time, there has been a very deliberate shift in student interest in courses in three areas. One is courses that prepare you for careers in the digital future. Some of these are understanding technologies and analytics and some of them are about how do these things get applied in practice.

The other aspect that we’ve seen very significant growth in student interest has to do with climate change. This could be understanding about the issue or with climate finance. It could have to do with ESG investing, impact investing or eventually courses that will have to do with business strategy as helping companies to affect the decarbonization that they will want to do. We’re seeing huge interest in that. We’re hiring people to teach a lot of these courses. We’re expanding curriculum, we’re putting stuff related to climate change in the core curriculum. So in some sense, that’s something that has started for quite some time, and I see it’s going to be in a growth phase for quite a period of time in the future. 

The third area that we’ve seen significant growth and student interest in are courses in entrepreneurship and innovation and the issue of business and society. These are the issues of social enterprise, socially responsible leadership, learning about how to engage, how to help address problems that our society is facing using business principles and business models and the like. Purpose-driven coursework and curriculum is something that has been a shift. 

Right now, we have a very well established center that houses a lot of those activities called the Tamer Center. Almost every student that comes through our MBA program takes at least one course in the Tamer Center. Many people take two or three or more, which would be 10 or 20% of the curriculum focusing in that area. That’s a shift that will likely continue to be present for quite some time.

Are these social enterprise courses more interdisciplinary?

The quick answer is yes, but it depends. They tend to also try to bring a mixture of student population that has both engineers and designers and managers or MBA students in the mix to better simulate the work environment that people will actually get exposed to when they leave the school. Some other courses tend to be very experiential in nature, not necessarily interdisciplinary. There is a course, Bridging the American Divide, where students—apart from classroom discussions—they actually visit companies. They visit cities, they visit places that face some of these challenges that we read and know about in our society.

Then they come back and discuss them and try to understand what is going on, why and what could we be doing about it. Experiencing in a way that is different than simply talking about it in a lecture or in a case study in a class. Some other courses, climate ones, for example, they tend to be interdisciplinary in the sense of bringing in both knowledge and content and experts from other disciplines. You bring superstar climate scientists to give you an overview of what’s happening there. You bring people from chemical engineering that are on the forefront of battery technology to talk about where we are in storage and where we think we can be in three, five, 10 years. 

Interdisciplinary approach to business education

What else is CBS doing to take an interdisciplinary approach to business education?

We have established programs with the law school. We have established programs with the medical school, with the School of International and Public Affairs. We have a program with journalism school where we take a bunch of students and they take the core MBA core here. And these are people that will go into business reporting later on. We also have a small, but incredibly good partnership with the undergraduate program at Columbia where we provide a set of courses to a select group of undergrads.

What I hope that we will continue to do is enhance these collaborations and grow them. I’m super excited about the climate school and the programs that we will do together in the sense of this is an area that we intend to invest tremendously over the next, you know, five, 10, 20, 30 years. I think there will be strong synergies with everything that happens at the climate school

I think we need to do more with the medical school. We’re doing quite a bit with engineering and we’re going to continue to do more. But I think we need to also do more in the health sciences area. And we need to figure out ways of making that happen both in programmatic, but also with curriculum. So it’s not just dual degree programs, but also curricular offerings that bring either business principles and frameworks to people that are doing their medical degrees or bringing incredible breakthroughs and the questions and the types of challenges that life sciences and health care delivery systems and networks face into our MBA classrooms.

Greater focus on ESG

What is CBS doing to cover a greater interest in ESG topics?

We happen to fortunately be in a place here at Columbia where we championed that area since the mid to late ’80s. The Tamer Center has an extremely robust set of curricular offerings. It has extremely robust programs for students that want to pursue careers in the nonprofit sector. I would say there is unlimited interest from students to engage in this such curricula and to explore professional career paths in that sector.

We’re introducing courses all the time. Last year, we introduced the course specifically looking into the shareholder/stakeholder debate and the future of capitalism. We’ve had 100 or so students and brought academics and CEOs and investors and policy makers into the classroom to discuss a lot of these topics and it’s been hugely successful. And we’re introducing courses more broadly in ESG. 

ESG, it’s a loaded acronym that means different things to different people. So some courses have to do with climate, some related courses have to do with actually investing and how ESG is changing investment management or asset management more broadly. Some have to do with governance. Some have to do with measurement and some have to do with thinking about societal questions like bridging the American divide, like the shareholder/stakeholder course and other courses that we offer.

How Columbia continues to evolve its curriculum

Have you seen more MBA grads going into typical careers (consulting, finance, tech)?

There are two things. The first is that eventually curriculum adjusts to best prepare students for what’s happening now in the economy and in businesses and for the future. And as a result, curriculum evolves based on the questions that companies are facing based on the dilemmas and issues that business leaders are facing. And as a result what we’re reading about business leaders are doing or thinking and are grappling with over the last three, 5, 10 years clearly makes its way into the curriculum. 

The other thing is the curriculum is dynamic and there is a market mechanism. Students ultimately pick the courses they want to do, somehow we adjust by offering more of what they want to do and a little bit less of what they don’t want to do, et cetera.

What we’re seeing right now is the result of both student interest and student leadership in that area. They’re passionate about that—maybe they want to pursue career paths in that area—and sort of a realization that these are core questions and core issues that are being faced by any organization, not just nonprofits or social enterprise organizations, but every business leader and every organization is thinking about these questions. And in order for me as a faculty member to best prepare our students for professional careers across industries, we should be exposing them to these issues.

What is CBS focusing on this year?

We’re doing a lot of work on courses on changes in the business world from how they change industries to what is the technology to how they change business function. There’s going to be a lot of that being rolled out over the next year. There is going to be a lot of curricular innovation in the area of climate change. I think that’s going to be sustained. This is going to be a whole journey of sort-of creating new courses and adapting new courses, because some of these courses will become stale in three years and they will need to be changing very dynamically. 

We’re doing quite a lot in the area of finance and, in particular, enhancing curricula in areas of finance that there is very strong student interest and things are evolving. One is asset management and quantitative investing and things of that sort. Other things have to do with digital finance and communications of blockchain. 

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