Dean’s Q&A: MIT’s Jake Cohen On A Curriculum Revamp

MIT's Jake Cohen, associate dean for undergraduate and master’s programs

MIT’s Jake Cohen, associate dean for undergraduate and master’s programs

The undergraduate business program at the MIT Sloan School of Management has been steadily plugging along for the last decade or so, stagnating with just one major as many of its competitors radically revamped their programs to include new offerings. That all changed when Jake Cohen arrived at MIT in 2012, crossing the Atlantic and leaving behind a plum position as dean of INSEAD’s MBA program. He’d been tapped by Sloan to serve as the associate dean for the school’s undergraduate and graduate master’s programs. It was a position he was eager to take on, even though he’d never overseen an undergraduate business program before.

“When MIT calls, you answer the phone,” he said. “ I think what made me move to MIT was first off an opportunity to be at MIT. MIT is an amazing place, and I feel privileged to be here. I was also drawn to the challenge of overseeing a broader portfolio of programs.”

Prior to joining INSEAD in 2003, Cohen served as a senior teaching fellow at Harvard Business School, and he and his family was excited to return to the area, he said.

“For me, coming back to Boston is a homecoming,” he said.

In his role as associate dean at Sloan, he oversees not just the undergraduate program, but the school’s master degree programs, which include ones in finance, business analytics and management studies. That’s allowed him to have a unique perspective on the strengths of Sloan, one that he’s been able to leverage over the last four years as he’s led a complete overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum. The new curriculum, introduced for the first time this January, is the result of extensive surveys, task forces and talks with undergraduate and graduate students about what they felt would make the undergraduate curriculum more dynamic, he said.

Sloan currently ranks second in U.S. News’ ranking of the best undergraduate business programs.

“We’ve made some changes to our undergraduate program that will increase our undergraduate footprint significantly,” he said. “This has been part of the change and excitement of joining MIT.”

Currently, only about 5% of MIT’s undergraduate class ends up majoring in business, a statistic Cohen hopes will improve with changes to the curriculum, and the introduction of three new majors. Cohen spoke recently with Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast about leading that process, what students can expect from the new majors and how students are receiving the curriculum so far.

What are some of the reasons you decided to leave INSEAD to come to MIT?

At INSEAD, I oversaw the largest MBA program in the world with over 1000 students. It was very much the flagship program and the only program to a large extent.  At MIT, it is a broader portfolio where we have an MBA program, but that’s one of ten degrees the school offers. I was interested in the challenge of learning and growing to oversee more programs and have a larger responsibility.

What are some of the innovations you’ve spearheaded as dean at the undergraduate level?

We are at the cusp of major changes to our undergraduate program that we’ve worked on over the past three-and-a-half years. We are quite excited that we have received approval from the school on Dec. 16, and as of Jan. 1 we launched a completely redesigned curriculum for undergraduates, and I really mean a complete redesign.  We went back to the drawing board, and conducted many surveys, engaged with faculty and talked to recruiters. We really listened to our undergraduates and we designed a program that I think will resonate and really create a lot of value for them.

Previously, there was one major that had existed at MIT for decades called management science.  We also had two minors, one in management science and one in management. Truthfully there was a lot of confusion about what exactly these programs and degrees were exactly about.

Starting from scratch, we designed three new majors, each with a separate curriculum, and did away with the one major that previously existed. The three new majors each have corresponding new minors as well. The majors are management (15-1), business analytics (15-2) and finance (15-3).

What was the primary driver behind doing such an extensive revamp of the undergraduate curriculum?

The restructuring in the undergraduate realm is quite significant. We’re going from a curriculum that existed for many decades but was starting to feel a little stale to a completely redesigned new curriculum focused on the things we know how to do and do well at MIT around management, finance and business analytics. We were looking to the market and trying to really position the school for what we know the world needs, and matching that with what MIT and Sloan has to offer.

The reason we came up with the new majors was that was I wanted to create some parallels to our graduate programs. At MIT, we have a rich portfolio of graduate programs, and we restructured our undergraduate programs around three verticals. One is management, and we have MBA, Sloan Fellows and EMBA management programs that focus on this area. In 2009, we launched a Master of Finance program that has been very successful, grown rapidly and is ranked very highly.  I wanted to take the lessons learned from that master’s degree program, and put it into a major and minor in finance for undergraduates.

And lastly, I wanted to create a new vertical, one in business analytics. Just last week, we created a completely new Master in Business Analytics, with approval from the MIT Corporation and MIT and Sloan faculty. We wanted to offer that content not just to master’s students but to undergraduate students too because of everything taking place in the world around big data and technology.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.