MBA students need a ‘business-plus’ degree focused on emerging tech, Emory Goizueta dean says

BY Sydney LakeApril 11, 2023, 4:35 PM
On the campus of Emory University, in Atlanta, October 2022. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage—AFP/Getty Images)

Emory University has ushered in a lot of changes recently—and yet, the highly competitive private school in Atlanta is eager to create new graduate business program options and focus on including emerging technology topics in its curriculum. After welcoming a new university president in 2020 and new provost in 2021, Gareth James was named the new dean of Emory’s Goizueta Business School last year.

James swapped one elite business school for another, having spent the prior 24 years with University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, most recently as deputy dean. Fortune ranks USC Marshall as having one of the best part-time MBA programs in the U.S. Since taking the reins in July 2022, James has already overseen several major changes at Goizueta, namely lengthening the undergraduate business program to three years instead of two, adding new master’s degree programs, and putting a greater focus on artificial intelligence.

Another change James is focused on is a broader appreciation for the full range of graduate program offerings at business schools. While it may be easy to point to full-time MBA programs as one of the most popular choices for graduate business education, very few students in the grand scheme of things pursue that specific path. In fact, only 3% of all students—both undergraduate and graduate—globally who are pursuing a business degree commit to the traditional two-year full-time MBA program, James tells Fortune. Rather, they opt for part-time MBA programs, executive MBA programs, or other specialized business master’s programs, he explains. 

“We’re concentrating more on making sure it’s got this diverse quality audience of students than trying to just make it another really big finance program out there,” James says.

That’s partly why Goizueta has been laser-focused on developing new graduate programs like its master’s in analytical finance program. In its first year, the program received 600 applications for just 35 spots. The school also intends to launch a master’s in business for veterans program in either summer or fall 2024, as long as the program is approved by the board of trustees and receives accreditation. 

Fortune sat down with James to learn more about the major changes and additions to Goizueta’s graduate offerings. 

A focus on emerging tech

Fortune: I see that there have been additions to Goizueta’s graduate programs to focus on A.I. Why is this an important area of focus?

James: I’m a statistician by training. That’s my academic background. So in my 24 years at USC, I taught machine learning and data science courses for mostly the MBA students, but other groups of students as well. So it’s a passion of mine. There’s been an uptick in and interest in analytics and A.I. and all of those different topics. 

At the moment, at the university level they’ve launched an A.I. initiative; they call it A.I.Humanity. Emory’s well known for the humanities and liberal arts education that we provide our students. Faculty will be recruited in all the different schools around Emory. The Center for A.I. Learning is going to bring together not only these new faculty that they’re recruiting in, but the current faculty that we have.

Within Goizueta, just since I’ve started as dean in July, we’ve already hired five new faculty as part of this initiative. The provost is helping to pay for them, which is really nice, but it’s something that we would’ve been doing anyway, because within the business area, obviously analytics, A.I. have been transforming business in just about every industry that you could imagine over the last decade or so.

Our students are graduating now, and they’re graduating with not only the traditional business skill set, but in many industries now they’re needing to have these analytics, A.I.-type training on top of it.

Why do you have such a passion for the combination of business and tech?

In 2006, I developed a course at Marshall on data science for business. And it was basically a course on some modern machine learning techniques supporting vector machines or neural networks or deep learning—things that are thrown around as buzzwords now. But back in 2006, that course was well ahead of the curve and very unusual to offer for MBA students. And people thought I was crazy. Just to make sure that I didn’t get any students there, they set the time for the class at 8 a.m.

But I had like 50 students in the class, and at the time, students were reporting back that they were getting jobs or internships just because people thought it was crazy that an MBA student knew anything about these topics at all. 

Fast-forward to 2018 and things had changed so dramatically over that sort of 10-, 12-year period that now it had become—instead of a bonus for those students—in some industries to even get your foot in the door, you needed to know about some of the stuff. And so we moved it from an elective course for MBA students into required material for the first year.

It’s not that we are reducing the amount of traditional business background, but we’re adding layering on top some of these extra topics. This is why things like business analytics master’s programs are incredibly popular.

My opinion as the dean is that every one of our students should be graduating—whether they’re BBAs [bachelor of business administration students] or graduate students—with, I call it, “business plus.” So, the traditional set of business skills, but there has to be a plus on top of that, something extra that those students are bringing. Analytics is only one example of that.

Job placement for Emory grads

What job markets are growing for MBA grads? Shrinking?

I just arrived here so I don’t take any credit for it, but I’m very proud of the fact that they have an incredible placement rate on both their BBA students and their MBA students, and also the business analytics students, as well. It’s very close to a 100% placement rate. Obviously it’s a good school, and we recruit good students—we do a good job educating them—but we have a great careers office to help the students out. Also, the region of the country that we are located in is booming.

There’s a lot of development going on both in Georgia, Atlanta itself, and Florida and the regions around here. Our second-year MBA students who are graduating next month are still doing very well getting placed. We haven’t seen a big downturn in the industries. A lot of them are going into consulting or finance industries, those are still doing very well. We are seeing a little bit more challenging environment for the first-year students in terms of getting summer internships.

It’ll be interesting to see how that translates next year for those students. Obviously, it’s hard to predict a year in advance, but for our current graduating students all seem to be still doing very well in terms of the jobs that they’re getting. 

We’ve heard reports, like everyone else, of the tech industry—some troubles there. We don’t place as many students in that industry as maybe some of the West Coast schools, for example, so we haven’t seen a direct impact from that. 

What about applications? Classroom experience?

We have seen some uptick and interest in applications to our MBA program from some individuals from the tech industry that have maybe been laid off. There was also a big uptick in international students applying for those programs. That presented opportunities and challenges in trying to balance the class between domestic and international students. 

With the specialized master’s programs, we’re seeing some significant uptick in applications with the working professionals programs, the evening program, the EMBA program. I think that’s not a reflection of necessarily a general market uptick, but the extra flexibility that we’ve been offering in those programs, so for both our EMBA and our evening program.

Basically, we have an entirely in-person version, the more traditional version, but we also have an entirely online version where we have these global classrooms where there’s an entire wall of monitors, and the faculty members in the room and each student has their own screen—so much better than a Zoom-type environment. We’re building more of those global classrooms, and we are seeing a big uptick in interest in those programs because of that online flexibility.

We’re also teaming it up with a hybrid option for students where the students can choose to take some of their classes online, but some of their classes in person as well. That means for any individual student, they can choose essentially anywhere from 100% in-person to 100% online to more like maybe a 50-50 environment where they choose to take some of their classes online and some of their classes in person.

I think the market is speaking very, very loudly that—especially for those working professionals programs—that’s clearly the future for those programs. 

Check out all of 
Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.