Dean’s Q&A: Carl Zeithaml Of University of Virginia

Carl Zeithaml

Carl Zeithaml

Carl Zeithaml is practically an institution at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, now serving his fourth term as the dean of undergraduate business school. He took helm in 1997, and is one of the longest serving deans at the University of Virginia. Under his leadership, the school has garnered a reputation as one of the leading undergraduate business programs in the country. The school is currently ranked as number two in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2013 ranking and number five in U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 ranking of best undergraduate business programs.

Zeithaml, a strategic management expert, has deep ties to the university, beyond just the dean’s office. Several of his five children have attended the University of Virginia, with some attending the McIntire School. During his seventeen-year-tenure at McIntire, he has been one of the primary drivers behind developing some of the school’s landmark programs, including an innovative core curriculum with corporate sponsors including Rolls-Royce and Alcoa. Other accomplishments include developing a leadership minor and creating a roster of international study experiences for students.

For students, he’s a familiar face on campus, one that many of them see every day in the classroom. Zeithaml, a strategic management professor, teaches a section of one of core classes that all business students are required to take, giving him hands-on experience with students, as well as insight into the next generation of business leaders, he says.

Zeithaml recently spoke with Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast about his thoughts on today’s competitive undergraduate business education landscape, job prospects for students, and what he sees as some of the advantages of having a two-year business program.

Why do you think there has been an explosion in undergraduate business education, and what are some of the reasons for it? 

I think there are some obvious reasons driving this; the economy, the rising cost of education and people looking for a return on their investment. But I also think that the undergraduate business programs are the best they have ever been. I think that they really focus on innovative learning for the students that are enrolled in these programs, and emphasize many of the themes that are important today in education. Certainly at our school we emphasize things like integration, not only of business disciplines, but integration with other important disciplines, whether they be analytics, global issues or the liberal arts and the humanities. I think that business school and undergraduate programs have been leaders in terms of really focusing on these issues.

We’re also leading the way in terms of innovative teaching techniques. I think there is a lot going on inside and outside of the classroom providing tremendous value to students. The students themselves are recognizing that the teaching and the content of the programs that we offer are leading the way in these areas.

What type of demand are you seeing at your school for your undergraduate business program, and how competitive is it to get in? 

We are a two-year-program, so students come to the University of Virginia enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, and in January of their second year they apply to transfer to the Commerce School for their third and fourth years. We transfer around 315, 320 students per year. Prior to this year, our all-time record was 535 applications from the second-year class. This year, we had 577 applications so we not only broke our all-time record, we demolished it.

The quality of the pool is also exceptional. The average GPA of students in the pool is about a 3.6, and their average SATS are over 1400. They are almost, without exception, some of the most engaged students on the grounds that they tend to be leaders in whatever kinds of activities they are involved in.

What are some of the unique aspects of your curriculum, and how does that help prepare students for a difficult job market?

One of the really important things to understand about our program is that we are significantly differentiated from the experience that most students have in other parts of the university. That is in practice because we have the most integrative and innovative core curriculum offered. We call it the Integrated Core Experience (ICE), and if you ask essentially any student on the grounds about the Commerce School, one of the things they talk about is ICE and what an amazing experience it is. It is very rigorous, but it has elements to it that really do define it in a way that the students believe is exceptional and, obviously, the faculty work very hard on it.

For example, we have eight sections in ICE that we call blocks. Each of the blocks meets three hours a day, four days a week for the first month, and offers a highly integrated curriculum. There are four teaching teams, and each team covers two blocks. The first module in the core curriculum is called strategies and systems, and is primarily taught by a strategy faculty member, a faculty member from the information technology group and a communication technology professor.

I’m a strategy faculty member, and I teach two blocks. For that first month, I’m in the classroom virtually 100 percent of the time with an information technology professor. Each of the teaching team blocks has corporate sponsors, and executives from the corporations not only sponsor but come in and talk about the company. This year our sponsors are Rolls-Royce, ABB, Alcoa and Major League Baseball. Students analyze the company, and the company actually provides them with real integrative projects that are the focus of students’ work through the fall semester. Then the students provide a project report at the end and have to do a comprehensive presentation. Executives from these sponsor companies come in and spend usually a couple of days with the faculty watching the presentations, critiquing them and grading them. It really brings a very real-world applied emphasis to the work they are doing. That kind of experience is really extraordinary. The students who are interested in business realize that they are going to be taught in a different way and be organized in a different way.

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