branding and the new Johns Hopkins MBA—early concerns

Screenshot: I’m biased. I like Johns Hopkins. So making these critical comments about their new Carey MBA program isn’t fun.

I first learned of this new entrant to the MBA field last year. I was glad for another option coming on to the scene. My concerns have only grown since then though. Here are some with my commentary in no particular order.

The Carey curriculum is not recognizably managerial. In itself this isn’t a dealbreaker–it could even be an edge. But when coupled with other signals that raise concern, it isn’t. If you add a lot of chocolate chips to a cookie, at some point it ceases to be a cookie and becomes a candy bar–if people wanted that much chocolate they would buy candy. If Carey’s curriculum is so vastly alternative to the general fare for most business schools, it suggests that maybe the credential that Carey values—and should award— is other than the MBA. Otherwise there should be a clear case that such a technical departure whilst in the name of the traditional MBA credential, is warranted.

Carey’s messaging hasn’t always resonated. This podcast of Carey Dean Gupta being interviewed about Carey sounds rehearsed and inauthentic. Little seems more essential at this point in American business history than transparency. Questions were also asked of the Dean that didn’t receive substantive replies but instead votes of general and vaguely based enthusiasm–an effective “trust me” seemed offered. This has destroyed firms, careers and lives in corporate America. One example is the Dean’s reply to the question of “Could you just define your metrics for success–What’s going to mean success to you in terms of the development of this school?” No substantive answer was provided and prospective students want and are entitled to know a Dean’s answers to questions precisely like this. Moreover, the inaugural reality of the program leads one to expect such answer would be forthcoming. The Dean spoke of a need for businesses that may not be the best at a profit level for shareholders but may generate returns in other ways. It was hard for me to fathom the economic model for this enthusiasm. It sounds like either nonprofit institutions, or not very successful for-profit ones. The latter of these isn’t sustainable; the former are fine, though what is true of them all is that they need money, and are effective generally only when a for-profit entity whose primary concern was the bottom line and which was very successful for shareholders, has given it to them.

A dialogue with the admissions team during a web chat primarily for people with applications in progress reflected poorly on the new Carey brand.
During a web chat primarily for active applicants the following questions were asked by me and others I name as “Student A”, “Student B”, etc., and replies received from Carey Admissions, though I had no application into Carey. Below are only select questions of interest lifted out of the longer chat. For the record, Carey Admissions stated that the chat aimed to answer “questions regarding admissions for the fall 2009 semester.”

me: With no awaiting MBA network or [MBA] brand legacy to leverage for a new program, what is the strategy in terms of placement for Carey graduates? How is it manifesting itself now?
Carey Admissions: Thank you for your question, but the Admissions Department is not involved in the placement process. This is a question best addressed by our Career Services Department. They can be reached at: carey.careerservices@jhu.edu

At first this registers as the appropriate answer to a misdirected question. I think otherwise:

Student A: How does the career placement services at JHU help with finding a position for students who graduate from Carey School with a graduate degree?
Carey Admissions: Thank you for your question, but the Admissions Department is not involved in the placement process. This is a question best addressed by our Career Services Department. They can be reached at: carey.careerservices@jhu.edu

Student B: What kind of job do undergraduate students have after they graduated? Do you have any program to support us find jobs?
Carey admissions: Thank you for your question, but the Admissions Department is not involved in the placement process. This is a question best addressed by our Career Services Department. They can be reached at: carey.careerservices@jhu.edu. They work with both Graduate and Undergraduate students.

The fact that this question was repeatedly raised to this body by the potential customers suggests that this was a legitimate question for the occasion. Placement drives the enthusiasm for all admissions. It’s critical insight of great value to prospective applicants who eagerly inquired and any wholesale detachment from it by Admissions can feel inadequate. It’s as if the sophistication of the applicants outstretched that of the persons conducting the chat—as they didn’t have answers to what those applicants considered to be among the most critical points of discussion. It leaves you wondering how well the school understands the animal that is a prospective MBA. From my experience, there are few chasms wider than those between business and law and business and science. JHU’s culture is so thoroughly steeped in science and research, that I immediately wondered last year how their foray into this very different arena of management on the same campus would manifest.

1: Admissions should know the answer, even if they don’t recite it, or don’t recite it with the detail of the Career Services staff. It doesn’t sound like they do.
2: Everybody at Carey should know the answer. It’s as fundamental as knowing why the new program was founded at all. It’s in the air—like knowing your team colors. There must be a demand signal that justifies the product of a Carey MBA and Carey must clearly know who makes it up and how their relationship with Carey is strategically managed. Anybody should be able to say “see that terribly detailed Carey MBA market research and recruitment partner initiative identifying entities who influenced Carey’s innovative curriculum and who look to source from Carey graduates at http://www.all_ the_ amazing _ stuff_ we_ have _ done_ pre-launch_ to  ensure_ this_credential_ greets_ a_strong- demand_ signal_ upon_ completion_ and_ why_ we_ can_ credibly_ say_ you_ will_ get_ a_ job/carey.careerservices .”

Student C: Is Carey MBA accredited?
Student D:I second Student C ‘s question about accreditation
Carey Admissions: For those who want to know our accreditation – please send your inquiry to carey.admissions and we will be happy to respond. Thanks to all

But aren’t we already talking to Carey admissions? Why do we need to send a formal inquiry to admissions under separate cover for something so fundamental? Carey is ready to receive applications; less automatic however, are their replies to basic but crucial questions from applicants like this one. At worst, this non-answer gets interpreted as an answer—the wrong one, for Carey.

me: Might you say roughly how many applications you have received for fall entry into the most sought after business program and what your acceptance rate is to this point?
Carey Admissions: It is difficult to respond at this time as we offer rolling admissions and we are still reviewing Fall 2009 applications

Demurrer. I was just seeking the critical mass of demand the admissions office was seeing and how competitive it was. This too is instructive to applicants about how well the product is “selling” to the applicant pool to this point.

Student E: How is the networking community at Carey?
Carey Admissions: – We have many student organizations, and Carey students are members of several social networking sites, such as inCircle, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Saying that many students are “members of several social networking sites, such as inCircle, Facebook, and LinkedIn” is not the ilk of answer Student E sought. You don’t need a Carey MBA to join Facebook and LinkedIn. The real question here is how Carey is a primary network resource for ultimate job seekers. It’s a roundabout placement question. That Carey admissions didn’t have an answer—knowing well that the Carey brand must make a case at every level far more strongly than all the already established programs for how it catapults you forward, and knowing the economic climate making all MBA candidates more challenged—personally left me wanting.

There’s no question about Johns Hopkins having the largest research base in the country of all academia. For the 13th consecutive year, per their website, Johns Hopkins Medical School earned more grants, awards and contracts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than any of the other 122 U.S. medical schools that received them; and Johns Hopkins Hospital has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report magazine as the #1 hospital for the past 19 consecutive years.

But that alone can’t substitute for the brand and agenda of Carey. I don’t fault the admissions office for raising concerns. Any fault rests above them with leadership empowered to embody Carey’s agenda and brand and to put all on the same page.

It’s far easier to criticize an effort like Carey than to start a new MBA program. I’m on Johns Hopkins’ side–indirectly.  I’m really on Carey prospective students’ side and that of our general economy. Time will tell whether this is a truly differentiated program with a new approach to management training, or at worst if someone decided that Johns Hopkins was leaving money on the table by having so strong a research and medical brand and not having an MBA program–any MBA program.  I hope for the former.

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